LOUISVILLE — In the end — the real end this time — those who pledged their allegiance to Shackleford got the can't-script-it-any-better sendoff they so desperately wanted for him 20 days earlier.
Instead of walking off in angst after his popular horse stumbled and lost all chance at the start of the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, trainer Dale Romans waltzed into a wall of cheers from the Churchill Downs crowd as he stepped to the winner's circle following Friday's Grade I Clark Handicap.
And instead of his final past performance line including the words "bobbled" and "fade," the last on-track impression Shackleford left was a perfectly crafted testament to the 4-year-old's ability and immense popularity.
Rare as it is for an athlete to leave a sport at the top of his game, it's even rarer to get a second chance at doing so. Following a disastrous seventh-place run in the Dirt Mile at Santa Anita on Nov. 3, Shackleford seized a second shot at career-ending glory when he headed every point of call in Friday's $447,000 Clark Handicap to notch his sixth career win in his 20th and final start.
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From his usual pre-race antics in the paddock to the way he turned back runner-up Take Charge Indy every step of the 11⁄8-mile race, everything about the Clark was quintessential Shackleford.
"That's the way he's supposed to leave," said Romans, who earned his 20th graded stakes win and ninth Grade I triumph in 2012 with the Clark victory. "That's Shack at his best. That's how we expected him to run at the Breeders' Cup and it wasn't his fault he stumbled.
"It's the end of an era for my stable. He made my résumé totally different than it was before he came into the barn."
The strong sentiment for Shackleford is rooted in more than his pretty looks. He gave Romans and co-owners Mike Lauffer and Bill Cubbedge national acclaim when he beat Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom to win the 2011 Preakness Stakes.
Though he rattled off back-to-back scores in the Grade II Churchill Downs Stakes and Grade I Metropolitan Mile this season, the fact he was 2-for-12 since the Preakness, sparked criticism that his reputation outweighed his ability.
"It was hugely gratifying in that he showed himself today," said Cubbedge, who bred Shackleford along with Lauffer. "It's been ups and downs and a lot of criticism about him, that he's a habitual loser. For him to run this way in this race, it's just elating."
Reunited with jockey Jesus Castanon, who had ridden him in 13 of his previous 19 starts, Shackleford got his all-important strong break in the Clark and had his way with the nine-horse field throughout.
After clicking off easy fractions of :24.31 and :48.65 up front, Shackleford wasn't yielding in the final furlong, leaving the 3-year-old Take Charge Indy to hold off Bourbon Courage for second as the winner stopped the clock in 1:49.12 over a fast track.
"We're ecstatic running second," said Pat Byrne, trainer of future WinStar Farm stallion Take Charge Indy. "We'd love to have him in training next year."
With $3,090,101 in earnings and three Grade I wins, Shackleford has sufficiently satisfied every hope for him as he begins his second career. The chestnut son of Forestry will command a fee of $20,000 when he enters stud at Darby Dan Farm for 2013.
"If we would have won the Dirt Mile, we probably wouldn't have run in this race," Lauffer said. "And what a better way to go out?"