LITTLE ROCK — Closing in on premier events in golf and thoroughbred racing, Rory McIlroy and Todd Pletcher surprised by altering schedules laid out long ago.
McIlroy’s decision is about preparation for The Masters next week; Pletcher’s is an attempt to get Palace Malice eligible for the May 4 Kentucky Derby. McIlroy’s feels a bit desperate; Pletcher’s is definitely last chance.
Preparing for Augusta National, McIlroy believes competing will do him more good than practicing. Most of the biggest names in golf get ready for one of the four majors by practicing instead of playing the week prior, focusing on the nuances of the course where the tournament will be held. A year ago, Tiger Woods and 1998 Masters winner Mark O’Meara even played a practice round at Augusta on the Sunday before the tournament.
Jack Nicklaus perfected preparation for a major and the odd thing about McIlroy playing in San Antonio this week is that less than a year ago, he and Nicklaus discussed the topic in an interview on CNN’s Living Golf Show.
Citing the need to compete, McIlroy’s itinerary leading up to the 2012 U.S. Open called for him to play in Nicklaus’ tournament and then go to Memphis before playing the Open in San Francisco. When he missed the cut at Murifield Village, he remembered what Nicklaus had said and used the open weekend to play in San Francisco.
"Not to disparage the Memphis tournament, but nobody remembers who won last year in Memphis," Nicklaus said. "They do remember who won last year’s Open."
To update, sub San Antonio for Memphis and The Masters for the Open.
McIlroy entered this week’s Valero Texas Open at the suggestion of his caddie. McIlroy’s foray to San Francisco didn’t work out — he missed the cut — but I’d rather listen to somebody who has won 18 majors. At least, McIlroy knows he is in the field at Augusta.
Not so with Palace Malice, who only has 10 points in the new system to qualify for the Derby. Almost two dozen horses have 20 points or more and there are only 20 spots in the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby, but third place in one of the four major remaining races might be good enough. There are races in California and New York on Saturday with 100-40-20, plus the Arkansas Derby and Blue Grass with the same point distribution on April 13.
Although Palace Malice ran in the Louisiana Derby last week, Pletcher is considering the Blue Grass — a quick turnaround that is rare these days. If he qualified for the Kentucky Derby, Palace Malice would have three races in five weeks in an era when spacing prep races four weeks apart is popular. Years ago, the Arkansas Derby and the Blue Grass were only two weeks prior to the 1 1-4-mile Derby, but now the down time is three weeks.
Watching from Florida, Pletcher saw Palace Malice’s troubled trip in Louisiana and immediately conferred with Cot Campbell, president of Dogwood Stable, about giving the seventh-place finisher another chance. Ridden by Edgar Prado, Palace Malice was trapped on the rail and unable to make a run.
"He had no place to go at any point in the race," Campbell said. "Edgar reported that he was wanting to run and that he went up on his own to third without having to be asked but, from there, he could not get clear. There was no absence of bad luck. He deserves another chance."
Meanwhile, the Arkansas Derby field is taking shape with 2-3-4 finishers in the March 16 Rebel expected. At the moment, Rebel winner Will Take Charge is a probable for the Blue Grass. Others are supposedly trying to decide between Arkansas and Kentucky. That’s a no brainer — the dirt at Oaklawn Park that is similar to the surface at Churchill Downs over the synthetic at Keeneland.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is email@example.com.