Wise Dan did not recover quickly enough from the effects of emergency colic surgery earlier this year to seek a third consecutive victory in Saturday's Grade 2, $500,000 Fourstardave Handicap at Saratoga. However, two familiar rivals to the two-time reigning Horse of the Year are the main protagonists in the one-mile heat scheduled for the inner turf.
Silver Max, a speedy son of Badge of Silver who has won 10 times in stakes company, is one of only two horses to have beaten Wise Dan since the the latter's reign as America's national champion began in 2012.
The five-year-old took advantage of strange circumstances at Keeneland last October, when the Shadwell Turf Mile was moved to Polytrack shortly before post time after a torrential downpour. With puddles unusually visible all over the course, Silver Max sped over the soaked course and upset Wise Dan by 1 1/4 lengths.
Silver Max wound up fourth behind Wise Dan in the subsequent Breeders' Cup Mile, one of his better efforts against that rival on turf. However, the Dale Romans trainee has proven hard to catch when not facing that future Hall of Famer, winning numerous Grade 2 events along the way including last year's Bernard Baruch Handicap over the Mellon turf.
Most recently, Silver Max returned from a layoff of nearly eight months to take the June 28 Firecracker at Churchill Downs in wire-to-wire fashion by 1 1/2 lengths.
"He's going to the front like he always does," Romans said of Silver Max, who will break from the inside post. "If someone can run by him, I want to buy him. He's got himself in peak form. Mother Nature made a fast horse with stamina."
Seek Again, who captured the Hollywood Derby in his U.S. debut last November, gave Wise Dan a scare in the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic on Kentucky Derby day, conceding the win by a head after a thrilling stretch-long duel with the champion. Subsequently third in the 1 1/4-mile Manhattan, Seek Again probably needs help from others in order to keep Silver Max from running away with the race.
"We felt like if he ran here and he was real effective at a mile, there were probably a few more opportunities at a mile between now and the end of the year," trainer Bill Mott said. "We may find out a mile is too short, but he's already won at seven (furlongs). We hope there is something (in the race) to keep the pace honest along with Silver Max."
The most logical candidate to do so is Sayaad, who enters on a three-race win streak for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. The streak has been spread out over the last calendar year, with the first triumph coming in the $100,000 Dance of Life here last August 21. Last time, the four-year-old led throughout to take the $144,000 Forbidden Apple in his first start in more than eight months.
"He's a nice horse," McLaughlin said. "He just missed eight months with an abscess and feet issues from October to July. He's won his last three. We got him on the right surface and he's fast, and we've found the right distance, and he's doing well. So, luckily, Shadwell is patient. For all those months off, he never left the barn with the abscess. Obviously, Silver Max is speed too, so we have to work out a trip."
Multiple Grade 3 winner Jack Milton, like Seek Again, is another who might benefit if the leaders come back to the field. The War Front colt took advantage of a hot pace in the one-mile Poker at Belmont on Memorial Day, and has numerous quality stakes-placings to his credit. A slow start compromised his effectiveness last out in the Shoemaker Mile, where he only improved his position modestly to finish fifth of seven.
"I think we ran him back a little bit quick in the (Shoemaker)," trainer Todd Pletcher said, "but he was doing well and we decided to take a shot. In retrospect, he probably would have benefited from a little more time, although he still ran a good race. So, we've been freshening him up and pointing him to this since then.
"Ideally, he would like to sit off the pace and make one run, but depending on the pace of the race, we'll just play it by ear."
Canadian invaders, both trained by Brian Lynch, round out the Fourstardave field. Grand Arch hit a peak when taking the King Edward, a Grade 2 event at Woodbine on June 22. Less accomplished is Dorsett, who's biggest win to date was in the $200,000 Mystic Lake Derby at Canterbury last season.