I have to admit, it took me awhile to warm up to Practical Joke, the talented 3-year-old colt by the fantastic middle-aged sire Into Mischief.

Like most people, I wanted him to graduate from his brilliant 2-year-old season and become a real threat to dominate this year’s Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown series. I wanted to see him grow, mature and be able to stretch out around two turns and go a classic distance with ease and style. I wanted him to finish those endurance races by going around the leaders with ease and out-kicking the closers with style. I wanted to see him rolling down the stretch at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May; pictured with a garland of Black-Eyed Susans in Maryland; and the Toast of the Town in the city so nice they named it twice. I wanted him to be something special.

To be honest, I wanted him to be something that he wasn’t. And, isn’t. And, that was my fault and not his. And, certainly, that doesn’t mean he isn’t special.

Because, to be equally as honest, Practical Joke truly is that.

This Saturday, unfortunately for those of us who finally came to appreciate his quality and his talent, Practical Joke will make his last race performance in the Grade 1, $750,000 Cigar Mile at Aqueduct. After that, he will head off to stallion duties at Ashford Stud in Versailles, KY. and become a roommate of the great American Pharoah.

Just like that, we will see the last of one of America’s most talented, and, yet, most gutty performers of the past two years. With the same blink of an eye that we have watched this colt go from stalker to winner so many times before, we will suddenly miss him on the racetrack and in nearly every big race that has come to pass for those in his age group over the past couple of years. He will have come and gone — right in front of us — just when we were beginning to fully understand and love his talent.

Sad, really. The race fan in all of us could use another dose or two of Practical Joke on Saturdays. But this Saturday may be — could be — Practical Joke’s most crowning achievement, as well as his swan song.

What if he can the Cigar Mile, beating the likes of the fantastic sprinter Mind Your Biscuits; and Todd Pletcher’s highly-regarded Neolithic, who has faced the formidable pair of Arrogate and Gun Runner for much of the past two years. What if he can turn the tables on Breeders’ Cup Mile runner-up Sharp Azteca, who has run over, around and past most everyone on the East Coast all year long? What if he can dominate Tom’s Ready, who recently won the G3 Bold Ruler Handicap at Belmont Park, and the others who are going to try to lay claim to one of North America’s most prestigious, season-ending, Stakes races?

What if Practical Joke can finish his career with an unblemished, unbeatable, unreal 6-for-6 record at one-turn mile races and gallops off into the New York skyline all the way to Kentucky to start making babies?

Could he finish the year as a Champion?

He not only could. He should.

After beginning his race career in 2016 with three straight victories — each more impressive than the one before, and including wins in the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga and the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park — Practical Joke was entered for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita.

Running at 11/16-miles and around two turns for the first time, Practical Joke found the competition and the distance to be a huge challenge. He was jostled at the start. He had to go 4 and 5 wide for much of the race. And, he was no match for either the victor, Classic Empire, or his worthy adversary, Not This Time.

It was the first time and the first sign that — maybe, perhaps, likely — distance was going to be an issue. Yet, still, to his credit, Practical Joke showed the same tenacity, courage, determination and guts that few Thoroughbreds ever muster when eating dirt and sucking air — he finished.  He finished third. A game third. And, he defeated the likes of Lookin’ at Lee, Three Rules, and the highly-touted Gormley.

It was enough to make us hope that he could find that extra gear as a 3-year-old. It was enough to make us think that maybe the magic man, trainer Chad Brown, could find that little tweak to make him go faster; go farther. It was enough to give us all hope.

Brown kept trying. We kept hoping. Practical Joke kept grinding.

He ran second in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth to the fast-closing, newest super horse Gunnevera.

He ran second to the maiden Irap in the Grade 2 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland — beaten less than a length.

He even gutted out a remarkable 5th to Always Dreaming over a wet track in the 11/4-mile Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May.

And, he nearly got up in time to win the 11/8-mile Grade 1 Haskell Invitational, despite traffic issues and a wide trip, only to lose by less than a length.

In the end, though, we realized three major themes:

One, Classic distances just wasn’t his thing. Not ever going to be.

Two, Practical Joke was as game a guy as you were ever going to find wrapped up in the body and soul of a Thoroughbred racehorse. No matter the distance. No matter the competition. No matter the obstacles. This guy was going to try.

Three, when you backed him up to one-turn races, Practical Joke was sensational. Perfect, in fact. And, if he can deliver one more punch this Saturday, maybe a Champ.

That trait surfaced first last year, as a 2-year-old. It resurfaced again this year, when Practical Joke captured the G3 Dwyer Stakes at Belmont Park going the one-turn mile in ease and style all the way to a 2-length victory.

It resurfaced again in the G1 H. Allen Jerkens Stakes at Saratoga, when he easily dispatched of high-class wannabes Takaful, American Anthem, Coal Front and others and ran off to an impressive 11/4-length victory.

It moved his record to 5-for-5 at one-turn races. It moved him into a realm of high praise. But, in closing, really it moved him right where he truly belonged — all along. He is a world class Miler.

After all, Practical Joke’s daddy is Into Mischief, who had two wins and a second in three starts as a 2YO. He won a MSW at 61/2 furlongs and ran second in the G3 Hollywood Prevue Stakes at 7-furlongs. His only win at over a mile came in the 11/16-mile G1 CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park. And, at age 3, Into Mischief won the 7-furlong Damascus Stakes and was second in both the 7-furlong, G1 Malibu Stakes and the 7-furlong, G2 San Vicente Stakes.

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And, after all, if you look at the dam’s family, arguably the best runner to hail from the lineage is Moment of Hope. He won the G2 Stuyvesant Handicap. He won the G3 Discovery Handicap. He was second in the G1 Vosburgh and the G2 Jim Dandy. But his biggest victory came in the G3 Salvator Mile — when he equalled the track record in a time of 1:34.60.

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Practical Joke has been telling us all along what we already knew. He is a world class Miler.

And, there is no shame in that. Ask all the breeder’s in the world about Mr. Prospector, who never won past 7 furlongs. Ask all the breeder’s about two of the best to ever step foot in the breeding shed — Dr. Fager and his grandson, Fappiano. Both were bred by the great John Nerud.  After all, Dr. Fager is considered to have run the best mile in the history of the sport, setting a new world record of 1:32 1/5 at Arlington Park.  That time has stood the test of almost 50 years, and he did it carrying the load of 134 pounds. Fappiano won one of the most prestigious mile races ever — the Metropolitan Mile — and has gone on to become one of the most dominating influences in the breeds since the days of Northern Dancer.

You can throw out the Breeders’ Cup Mile held at the pretty, yet impractical Del Mar race track in Southern California. Truly. That was a two-turn race, and with the outside draw that was bestowed upon Practical Joke, he had no fighting chance. The draw, in fact, was the cruelest of all, er, practical jokes. Still, true to his fighting nature and competitive character, Practical Joke some how, some way managed to finish fourth.

But this Saturday, you can throw in all the marbles. Practical Joke will finish his racing career in the Cigar Mile. It is a one-turn mile, as it should be. It is right up this boy’s baileywick.

As the great writer Steve Haskin typed for “The Blood-Horse”:

“So, why is it so important that a mile race be run around one turn? Because the entire concept of the mile is a race that is an elongated sprint, which tests a horse’s major qualities like no other distance. And that is why the breeders covet milers so much as stallions. Once you run the race around two turns it might as well be a mile and 70 yards or a mile and a sixteenth, neither of which is a grade 1-caliber distance in America. Also, around two turns, the luck of the draw becomes a major factor, as a far outside post with such a short run to the turn often proves disastrous.

“What makes a mile around one turn so appealing is that it brings together horses who have been sprinting and running longer distances and pits them against each other at the most demanding distance of all.”

Here’s hoping that Practical Joke can leave us all with a smile on our face one last time; and laughter in our hearts, for a lifetime. Here’s hoping that he finishes his career exactly where he started it all. In the winner’s circle. Here’s hoping that he completes his life’s mission — as a Miler — with a Championship banner to come.