SARATOGA SPRINGS Tom McGrath said he pulled the name of his stable out of thin air.
On Sunday, his 4-year-old colt pulled a major upset out of thick air.
A hot, sticky day produced a massive rainstorm early in the card to turn Saratoga Race Course into a mudpit — one that threw Shackleford off his game — but was no hindrance to 36-1 Poseidon’s Warrior as he became the middle prong of a trident between Emcee and Justin Phillip in the last two strides to win the six-furlong Grade I A.G. Vanderbilt before 19,762.
That gave 19-year-old jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. the second Grade I victory of the meet and his career, and the first for trainer Butch Reid.
And it was by far the greatest accomplishment in the very short life of Swilcan Stable. McGrath plucked the name of his operation off the wall — a picture of a bridge at St. Andrew’s Golf Course — while badgered on the phone by the vacation-bound lawyer who was handling the new stable’s paperwork.
It all came together perfectly for Poseidon’s Warrior, and all fell apart in a hurry for 2011 Preakness and 2012 Met Mile winner Shackleford, who went off at 6-5 from the No. 1 post, resisted license to run from John Velazquez and chugged home in last as Velazquez geared down.
“Getting beat a nose or getting beat a neck, you [still] think you have the best horse,” trainer Dale Romans said of Shackleford. “When you get beat that far, something’s wrong, and this time, we’re going to blame the race track. We got unlucky when it rained today.”
On paper, Shackleford was clearly the class of the field, but Reid said he didn’t mind the rainstorm, which started a half-hour before the first post and lasted an hour.
For one thing, Poseidon’s Warrior, a son of 2004 sprint champion Speightstown, won in his only start on a wet track, at Penn National last year.
Reid also believed that such a development could be an equalizer for underdogs like his horse.
“It’s like in football, when you’re a long shot, sometimes the elements can level the playing field,” he said. “I liked it. I knew he handled the slop well in training, so I wasn’t worried about it at all.”
While Poseidon’s Warrior was all but ignored in the paddock, all eyes were on the magnificent chestnut with the easily recognizable broad blaze.
Like a troublesome-looking storm cloud, Shackleford balked at saddling in the walking ring, so Romans moved him to the stall.
Once the gate opened, Shackleford — whose preferred style is to get his face in front, then hold off challenges — lurched his way along the rail as outside horses cut over in front of him.
“The first two jumps, I knew right away,” Velazquez said.
Velazquez was able to conjure some semblance of rhythm from Shackleford heading to the half-mile pole, but the horse clearly was not a willing participant every time Velazquez asked him to do it by himself.
“As soon as I gave him his head again to try to put him into the race again, he let go right away,” Velazquez said. “He was not comfortable.”
“I didn’t expect him to run like that, but he’s 0-for-3 in the mud,” Romans said. “John said when he held him together, he was moving along fine. As soon as he dropped his head, it was like he was spinning his wheels.”
Shackleford’s previous experience on a wet track were a fifth in the Belmont last year and a seventh in the Donn this year.
Romans said he and Velazquez are going to simply throw this one out, and stay on course for the seven-furlong Forego on Sept. 1, although Romans vowed never to run Shackleford on a sloppy track again.
In the meantime, Poseidon’s Warrior and Ortiz sat outside front-runners Emcee and Rothko, who dropped out of the picture at the eighth pole, while Emcee ran on along the rail and looked like he might win at the sixteenth pole.
Poseidon’s Warrior gathered himself after some sideways action in the stretch and got straightened out just in time to catch Emcee to his inside and hold off the hard-charging Justin Phillip to his outside.
He finished a neck ahead of Justin Phillip, who was a neck ahead of Emcee.
“I just waited and was patient,” Ortiz said. “I tried to do my best in the stretch, and he just kept going.”
“That was a race we’ve been looking at for a long time,” Reid said. “He was a notch below the top horses last year. If we had known Shackleford was coming, we probably would’ve made other plans.”