In a shedrow that features more than one proven Grade I hero, the quietly consistent Silver Max has emerged as the savior of Dale Romans' barn this year.
He didn't have the top-level wins and his level of flash was always eclipsed by others. But with torrential rain wreaking havoc on the headline race of Keeneland's fall meet and the horse regarded as the world's best at his flank Saturday, the 4-year-old showed why his Eclipse Award-winning conditioner counts on him in times of stress.
It had been more than 12 months since reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan ended a race other than in the winner's circle. Silver Max brought the champion back to mortal ranks when Wise Dan's nine-race winning streak ended with a second-place finish in the $750,000 Shadwell Turf Mile.
The "Turf" portion of this year's race ended up being in name only. With over an inch and a half of rain drenching the area, Keeneland officials consulted with the jockeys after Better Lucky won the Grade I First Lady Stakes on the turf and announced the Shadwell would be taken off the grass and run at 11⁄16 miles over the main Polytrack.
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The move meant the Shadwell is no longer considered a "Win and You're In" Breeders' Cup race, which would have covered entry fees and a travel stipend of $10,000 for the winner. Its Grade I status also must now be reviewed by the American Graded Stakes committee, but with no scratches in the 10-horse field, it is expected to keep the grade.
The change should not have favored Silver Max. Where Wise Dan is the track record holder for 11⁄8 miles over the Keeneland Polytrack, Silver Max was running on a synthetic track for the first time in his 22 career starts. After making 10 starts in 2012, the Shadwell was Silver Max's 7th start this year — a factor Romans credits for the colt's current form.
"I didn't know how he would act on the Polytrack but ... Dan came running at him and Max had a lot left," Romans said. " ... Last year we had a worn-out horse come the fall and we realized that and did things different this year to point for the Breeders' Cup (Mile)."
Silver Max captured the Romans barn's first graded win this year in the Grade III Oceanport at Monmouth Park on July 28.
Of the five graded stakes wins Romans has amassed this season, the bay son of Badge of Silver has accounted for three of them. And all of those wins came exactly the way Saturday's did, with him winging away up front.
"You've got to have a go-to horse and he's been the go-to horse this year," Romans said.
Breaking from post No. 9 under jockey Robby Albarado, Silver Max was well in hand through fractions of :23.79 of :46.73 as John Velazquez had Wise Dan in stalking position on an outside path.
Wise Dan won last year's Shadwell by 21/4 lengths but couldn't pull away around the final turn this time. Silver Max hit the wire 11/4 lengths in front in a time of 1:42.06.
"Johnny said that horse won fair and square," said Charlie LoPresti, trainer of Wise Dan. "Usually he's dragging him there and he thinks he can get by them but he was getting tired."
LoPresti said he would have scratched Wise Dan from the Shadwell had the race remained on the turf but did not blame the track conditions for his gelding's loss.
"Maybe with the water on (the track), who knows how it plays. It could be more sticky," LoPresti said. "But I'm not going to make any excuses."