In many ways, Sunday's Grade III Bryan Station Stakes was all about adversity for Cowboy Cal.
In the paddock and in the starting gate, the dark bay colt became fractious and obstinate. And once he finally settled in to do his best running, his closest challenger kept knocking him off his stride.
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But ultimately, no amount of obstacles could keep Cowboy Cal from a triumphant comeback as he captured the one-mile, $150,000 turf test via disqualification at Keeneland in his first start in more than four months.
Cowboy Cal had been off since finishing ninth in the Kentucky Derby on May 3 and that freshness showed as he attempted to rear several times after being saddled and then had to be forced into the starting gate.
The son of Giant's Causeway proved his mettle was none the worse for wear, however. After rating easily in second, he assumed command from pacesetter St. Joe entering the stretch and was dead game as Seaspeak ranged up on his outside to engage him.
Seaspeak, with Kent Desormeaux aboard, appeared to lug in down the lane, however, bumping Cowboy Cal repeatedly as Cowboy Cal had battled back to stick a head in front in deep stretch.
Seaspeak got the nod at the wire, but several minutes later the stewards ruled the contact had been too much and took the son of Mizzen Mast down, placing him second.
"I wasn't sure what (Kent) was doing," said John Velazquez, jockey for Cowboy Cal. "My horse got to the lead and started waiting and when the other horse came to him, he started fighting right back.
"He put his head in front and the other horse started leaning on him and took him off balance down the lane. That's how I got beat."
Desormeaux countered, saying it was Cowboy Cal who initiated the contact.
"He drifted into me first at the top of the stretch," he said. "My horse ran an amazing race."
Final time for the race was 1:35.70 over a firm turf.
Seeing Cowboy Cal return to top form was especially poignant for his owners Bob and Janice McNair.
Cowboy Cal, who was named after the McNairs' son, was the lone horse in training the couple retained after they sold their entire Stonerside Stable operation to Sheikh Mohammed's Darley in early September.
"He bled a little bit in the Derby so we wanted to give him plenty of time," said John Adger, racing manager for Stonerside. "Now hopefully we'll have a colt who will move forward and he'll probably point to the Hollywood Derby (on Nov. 30)."
Trained by Todd Pletcher, Cowboy Cal has won four of eight lifetime starts including the Grade III Tropical Park Derby on Jan. 1.
The homebred colt showed he could run on synthetic surfaces as well when he finished second in the Grade I Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland this spring. Adger expects the McNairs to keep him in training as a 4-year-old.
"We want to run him as long as we can," Adger said. "Hopefully he can be an important horse next year."