For front-running horses, how they get away from the starting gate often dictates how they'll finish.
That's why Shackleford's fate was sealed the moment his knees crashed to the ground at the start of the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile at Santa Anita Park on Nov. 3.
The image of Shackleford gathering his chestnut limbs for a seventh-place finish after a stumble at the start was not the final memory his people wanted for the horse that brought them their first classic glory.
So in an attempt to give the multiple Grade I winner a better final note on which to end his career, the 4-year-old Shackleford is returning to his home base for one last shot at standing tall at race's end.
Win or lose, the 20th start of Shackleford's career will be his final one Friday. The 2011 Preakness Stakes winner and soon-to-be addition to the Darby Dan stallion roster is the 2-1 morning-line choice in a field of 10 3-year-olds and older horses for the Grade I, $400,000-added Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs.
Since taking the 13⁄16-mile Preakness in 2011, Shackleford's only two wins in 12 subsequent starts have come in the 7-furlong, Grade II Churchill Downs Handicap on May 5 and an epic nose triumph over Caleb's Posse in the Grade I Metropolitan Mile 23 days later.
While a start in Saturday's Grade I Cigar Mile at Aqueduct would have offered Shackleford his ideal distance, staying home over the surface that has produced two of his five career wins won out over facing the likes of Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint heroine Groupie Doll in New York.
"I wanted to run him at Churchill Downs and didn't want to ship him," said Dale Romans, who trains Shackleford for owners Mike Lauffer, Bill Cubbedge and Phillips Racing Partnership. "I think he'll run big and the 11⁄8 miles might be a little easier on him pace-wise than the (Cigar) Mile.
"He's done all he needs to do, but it'll be hard to see him go. He's my first classic winner and that means a lot."
The Clark is serving both as Shackleford's swan song and the potential jump-off point for established talents trying to reassert themselves.
The beautifully bred Take Charge Indy won the Grade I Florida Derby last spring but emerged from his 19th-place run in the Kentucky Derby with a bone chip in his left ankle that required surgery.
In his first start back, the son of A.P. Indy was third in the Grade II Fayette Stakes at Keeneland on Oct. 27. Like Shackleford, Take Charge Indy has been most effective when on the lead.
"He got so much out of (the Fayette)," trainer Pat Byrne said. "I bet he's 5 or 6 lengths better (now). I was so apprehensive going into the Fayette off a six-month layoff, but I could only train him so much. He nearly pulled it off."
Pool Play and Mission Impazible, the 1-2 finishers in the 2011 Stephen Foster at Churchill, are both in the Clark field as is Grade II winner Bourbon Courage.
As good as the Clark has been recently in producing handicap standouts, Saturday's Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes has an impressive strike rate of its own, yielding a Kentucky Derby winner (Super Saver) and unbeaten Derby contender (Gemologist) with its victors in two of the last three years.
Any juvenile who can win a two-turn race beneath the Twin Spires justifiably gets on the Derby radar — and the Mark Casse-trained Uncaptured took steps toward that when he romped to a 51/2-length victory in the Grade III Iroquois Stakes at Churchill on Oct. 28.
Owned by John Oxley, Uncaptured will lead a field of 13 juveniles for the 11⁄16-mile Kentucky Jockey Club on Saturday in what will be his seventh start this year. The son of Lion Heart won his first four outings at Woodbine before suffering his lone defeat in the Grade III Grey Stakes there on Oct. 7. "He's always acted like he was a little on the special side," said Casse, who will also saddle Indiano Jones in the race. "The way these things go, it's about how they progress and he's progressed."
The Grade II Golden Rod for 2-year-old fillies will also be on the Saturday card featuring a field of nine.