It hasn't been the easiest of roads for Nikki's Sandcastle in a 35-race career that has been beset by physical setbacks.
It wasn't the prettiest of journeys either for the six-year-old gelding in Saturday's Grade II Hagyard Fayette Stakes at Keeneland. But like the ailments that once interrupted his progress, he ended up putting his rivals in his wake.
After spending a good chunk of the 11⁄8-mile race looking for running room, Nikki's Sandcastle swung out well wide around the final turn and overtook Winning Cause in deep stretch to earn his first career graded stakes victory in the $200,000 Fayette Stakes on the closing day of the Keeneland Fall Meet.
The angst was building inside trainer David Kassen as he watched jockey Leandro Goncalves wrestle the gelded son of Castledale back behind a wall of horses and sit in seventh just past the opening quarter in :23.96.
"I was in traffic the whole way from the first turn. I had to check five or six times," said Goncalves, who finished with seven wins for the meet.
That battle of restraint continued down the backstretch as Ol Army prompted Set the Sail through a half in :48.14. In the final quarter mile, Nikki's Sandcastle was finally able to angle out and find daylight en route to hitting the wire 11/4 lengths ahead of Winning Cause.
"He just never had nowhere to go," Kassen said. "It wasn't the rider's fault, he was just a victim of circumstances. I've seen a lot of horses where if you have to pull them up that much, they make a little run and then give it up. But he didn't, he was good."
Overcoming adversity has been a running theme in Nikki's Sandcastle's development. Owned and bred by Richard Sherman, the chestnut gelding was born with a spinal issue that threatened his early days and has twice been plagued by chips in his left knee.
The second knee chip occurred following his sixth-place run in the Grade II Mac Diarmida Stakes at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 16, and the Fayette was just his third start back since that time.
"He's had a lot of problems," said Kassen, who has trained Nikki's Sandcastle for just over two years. "He stays pretty good, you just have to work on him a lot. But he holds in there. He always trains good."
Sent off at 11-to-1 odds, Nikki's Sandcastle covered the distance in 1:48.13 as he notched his ninth career triumph. Winning Cause was 11/4 lengths ahead of You Know I Know in third with race favorite Willcox Inn finishing last in the field of nine.
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.