From the start, there has been a sense of fable surrounding Rahystrada's presence in the Arlington Million. And while a fairy-tale ending hasn't been recorded just yet, the incredulous nature of the 9-year-old gelding's annual trips to the 11/4-mile race continues to inspire marvel all the same.
In 2010, after taking four years and 22 starts to earn the first graded stakes win of both his and trainer Byron "Scooter" Hughes' careers, Rahystrada made his Grade I debut in Arlington Park's flagship race, finishing a more-than-respectable fourth.
Three years later, the old-timer has kept himself embedded in the top-level company. Where once simply being in the Arlington Million was a career pinnacle, it has now become difficult to imagine an edition of the international turf showcase without him.
The 31st running of the Arlington Million will also mark the continuation of Rahystrada's equine ironman streak. Having already become the first horse to win the Grade III Arlington Handicap three times when he took that contest on July 13, the chestnut son of Rahy is slated to make a record fourth straight appearance in the Million when he breaks from post No. 12 in a field of 13 Saturday.
After spending the better part of his first four years on the track in claiming and allowance ranks, Robert Courtney Jr.'s gelding has become a five-time graded stakes winner with more than $1,371,750 in earnings in a career that is 44 starts deep with 14 victories to date.
He has bloomed into the horse of a lifetime for Hughes and Courtney with little evidence that he is going to start backing up in form. Never out of the top five in the Million, Rahystrada posted his best finish in the race a year ago when he ran third to Little Mike — who is back for another go-round himself — and has not been worse than fourth in his last nine starts dating to his 12th-place finish in the 2011 Grade I Canadian International.
"We just take it year to year, race to race and as long as he shows he wants to train and wants to run, we keep on going," said Hughes from his base at The Thoroughbred Center on Paris Pike this week. "He takes good care of himself but he still runs hard. That's the key. Also, they have a big field here (at The Thoroughbred Center) and he gallops on that every day except for when we work him, so he hardly ever goes to the track. That keeps him fit and keeps him happy."
Other than Father Time bringing Rahystrada around, Hughes has no magic moment to cite for the gelding that's gotten better with age.
Hughes does, however, recall jockey Leandro Goncalves remarking he felt the then 5-year-old gelding could be "any kind" after guiding him to an upset win in a 1-mile allowance race at Keeneland in October 2009. More positive declarations flowed a month later when at odds of 56-1, Rahystrada bested graded company in his first try by taking the Grade III River City Handicap on the Churchill Downs turf.
In 22 starts for Rahystrada since that breakout win, 19 have come against stakes company.
"(Jockey) Inez Karlsson, when she started riding him, she gave him a lot of confidence and she and Leandro ... they both told me he was improving every time they rode him," Hughes said. "So we said, we're going to test him out. We just kept testing him and he kept giving it to us."
Already, this year's Arlington Million is looking up for Rahystrada. After drawing the No. 1 post position for the last two years, he and jockey Rosie Napravnik now have the benefit of being able to sit back and time their move should Little Mike and Nates Mineshaft engage up front as expected.
Were Rahystrada to win Saturday, he would equal the legendary John Henry as the oldest horse ever to take the Million. Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella saddled 8-year-old The Tin Man to victory in the race in 2006 and will try to upend the veteran runners this year with South American Group I winner Indy Point, who captured the Wicker Stakes at Del Mar on July 24 in his North American debut.
"It takes a good horse (to win the Million) and you have to have luck," Mandella said. "You can't do any of this if they're not good enough, fast enough. With that, they have to have the mind to accept what is happening out there."
For as much time as it took for Rahystrada to fit into such criteria, few would now question he belongs.
When: 6:44 p.m. EDT
Where: Arlington (Ill.) Park
Purse: $1 million (Grade I)
For: 3-year-olds and up
4 miles (turf)
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.