by Mike Henry

When Adirondack King was a 3-year-old in 2012, his trainer, John Servis, thought he had the potential to run in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands. But after finishing third in the Grade III Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn, he was knocked off the Triple Crown trail with foot issues, which have plagued him over the ensuing seasons.

Following a seventh-place finish last July in an allowance/optional claiming race at Laurel, Servis and his owners agreed to give him a rest, unsure if he would return to competition. “We put him back in training in early fall, and Bob Graham, the managing partner (of MarchFore Thoroughbreds) told me the horse would let me know if he wanted to keep racing,” Servis said from West Palm Beach, where he watched the race on his iPad.

“He’s been so good to us that if he couldn’t come back at least as an allowance horse, they were going to let him be a lawn ornament instead of running him for a claiming price. Those are the kind of people you like to see do well.”

Adirondack King has done nothing but train up a storm in south Florida this winter, and after failing to find a suitable race for the 7-year-old gelding at Gulfstream, Servis chose the 25th edition of the $100,000 Challenger Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs today for his comeback effort.

The son of Lawyer Ron-Jostle, by Brocco, rewarded his connections’ patience, taking the lead on the far turn under jockey Javier Castellano and holding on through the stretch for a half-length victory from Neck ’n Neck.

Adirondack King completed the mile-and-a-sixteenth in 1:44.15 and paid $25.20 to win as the third-longest shot in the seven-horse field. Breaking Lucky finished third.

Now 7-for-37 lifetime, the winner had raced once as a 3-year-old at Tampa Bay Downs, finishing third in the Pasco Stakes.

“I had a lot of confidence today because of the way he’s been training, and I have to give all the credit to Mr. Servis for bringing him back after a long layoff,” Castellano said. “He put in a great performance today. I had the worst part of it in the beginning when a lot of horses rushed up to get to the rail, but the way he responded was amazing.

“I felt (Neck ’n Neck) coming from the top of the stretch, but I kept riding and my horse kept fighting. He has a lot of heart, and the way he did it today is a credit to him and his trainer.”

First-place money of $60,000 raised Adirondack King’s career earnings to $501,574. “He’s had a lot of nagging foot issues, but when he does run, he usually shows up,” said Servis, best known as the trainer of 2004 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Smarty Jones. “He is a fun horse to be around.”

In recent years, the Challenger has proved to be one of the track’s most competitive stakes while laying the foundation for future success. In 2012, the Wilkes-trained 4-year-old Fort Larned captured the race, using the experience as a stepping stone toward victories in the Grade III Skip Away at Gulfstream, the Grade III Prairie Meadows Cornhusker Handicap, the Grade I Whitney Invitational at Saratoga and the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita.

Last year’s Challenger winner, trainer Todd Pletcher’s General a Rod, is seeking to score the biggest victory of his career in today’s Grade I Santa Anita Handicap. His resume includes a runner-up finish in the Grade II Besilu Stables Fountain of Youth, a third-place finish in the Grade I Besilu Florida Derby and a fourth-place performance in the Preakness, all in 2014.