His connections couldn't pinpoint how or why the switch happened. But in the two years after Regally Ready hit his career pinnacle, the consensus was that the Grade I winner wasn't the same horse.
Regally Ready lost nine straight races after his victory in the 2011 Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint, with an allowance win at Keeneland in October 2013 finally stopping the skid. Since the Vinery color bearer couldn't seem to regain his old form, trainer Steve Asmussen kick-started the veteran by making him into something new.
Formerly a turf sprinter extraordinaire, the 7-year-old Regally Ready has been reinvented since stretching out over a route of ground, winning three of five starts this year racing over distances of 1 mile or greater.
The chestnut gelding's career resurgence continues with Saturday's Grade II, $200,000 Firecracker Stakes over the Churchill Downs turf. Regally Ready is the 5-2 second choice on the morning line against seven others following two straight wins over the course.
After a venture to Dubai for the 2012 Al Quoz Sprint resulted in a 14th-place run, Regally Ready never came back to the level of his 2011 Breeders' Cup victory, even though he was given a seven-month freshening at one point.
Since Asmussen began stretching him out to a mile at the end of his 2013 campaign, Regally Ready has responded by winning an 8-furlong allowance test at Santa Anita Park on Jan. 2, a 11⁄16-mile Churchill allowance race in gate-to-wire fashion on May 1 and most recently the Opening Verse Stakes by three-quarters of a length over fellow Firecracker entrant Villandry on May 31.
"I think it's impressive that Steve took a champion sprinter and taught him to stretch out," said Tom Ludt of owner Vinery. "We went over to Dubai and he didn't run well and I think we thought we took enough time but ... I don't know what happened. He just was a different horse.
"Being that he's a gelding we gave him a lot of time and Steve said, 'You know, I think we can stretch this horse out a little bit.' One thing led to another and he's just come back. He's a funny horse. When he's happy, he's good."
Regally Ready's mini rebirth comes with more than the usual swell of pride. The longer the gelding extends his career, the legacy of one of the Thoroughbred industry's most noted farms also endures.
In August 2012, Vinery owner Tom Simon announced he was selling his U.S. breeding and training operations, citing future family plans and interests. Vinery's 220-acre training center in Ocala, Fla., was purchased that December by Barbara Banke's Stonestreet Farm. Chilean-based Haras Don Alberto bought the 440-acre Central Kentucky breeding facility in October 2013.
As a result, homebred Regally Ready is the only horse still carrying Vinery's green and white colors on the track. The fact he is by More Than Ready, who carried the Vinery banner in the stallion barn for years, only adds to the heightened sentiment attached to his every stride.
"There is no doubt about that. There are a few friends back in Lexington that have the same attachment to him," said Ludt, who was president of Vinery and is now president of Santa Anita Park. "This has been a real special horse for us, it's Vinery's last racehorse. He's earned everything he's gotten. He's sound, he loves racing and so we're having fun with him."
Enjoying Regally Ready for as long as he lets them is the modus operandi at this stage of his career. His eighth-place finish in the Grade I Frank E. Kilroe Mile at Santa Anita on March 8 was a bit of a reality check. So the Firecracker will serve as a barometer as to the level the old warrior can still battle.
"I'm just not sure at age 7 if he's at the Grade I level, but maybe he is," Ludt said. "I talked to the Simons a bit and I just said as long as this horse is healthy and enjoying racing, let's just have fun with him. We're going to let him guide us race to race and whenever he is done racing, we'll retire him and be happy.
"I told Steve, 'We'll bring him to Churchill and give him one more shot.' And now he won't lose."
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com.Twitter: @horseracinghl.