05/22/2011 11:09AM

Day After Preakness Thoughts

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I don’t know about you, but after a race is won by a horse I didn’t like, I always go back and look at that horse’s past performances to see if there was something I overlooked. Beyond torturing oneself, the intention of this exercise, which is as old as handicapping itself, is to reduce future oversights.

I freely admit that I did not like Shackleford before Saturday’s Preakness, and after a post race review, I have to admit that I still couldn’t have liked him. In his stakes debut three starts back, Shackleford was beaten more than 23 lengths in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. Two starts back, Shackleford lost in the Florida Derby, albeit narrowly, despite lucking into a mostly uncontested lead through reasonable fractions on a speed-favoring track. And last time out in the Kentucky Derby, Shackleford set an uncontested pace that was historically slow, and he still faded to fourth.

In the Preakness, Shackleford was sure to encounter a much stronger early pace that figured to deny him the early lead. If Shackleford couldn’t win the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby with easy trips, how could he win the Preakness with a much tougher trip?

Well, Shackleford did win the Preakness – courageously, I might add – despite encountering that much tougher trip. Whether I can make him after the race is irrelevant. Shackleford deserves full credit for what he did Saturday.

As for Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom, who was my pick in the Preakness, I thought he was the winner when he split horses and moved out late on the far turn, and I again though he was the winner in mid stretch. Given the late kick Animal Kingdom displayed in the Derby, I thought he had Shackleford totally measured at that point. But Animal Kingdom didn’t get there, and in the end, he simply wasn’t good enough Saturday.

Now it is on to the Belmont Stakes, a race I feel empathy for because its fate is never of its own making. The strength, the meaning, of the Belmont is always totally reliant on what happens in the Derby and Preakness. The Belmont can be positively electric when a Triple Crown shot is at stake, which has happened 11 times since Affirmed became the last to sweep the Triple Crown in 1978. But the Belmont can also, frankly, be a dud. That is especially true in years when separate Derby and Preakness winners don’t show up, as was the case in three recent and very forgettable Belmonts : Commendable in 2000, Jazil in 2006, and Drosselmeyer last year.

It is early yet, but it is heartening that the connections of both Shackleford and Animal Kingdom are seriously considering going in the Belmont. It is interesting to note that separate winners of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness meeting in the Belmont doesn’t happen all that frequently. The last time it happened was in 2005, when Preakness winner Afleet Alex romped, crushing Derby winner Giacomo. Before that, you have to go back to 1994, when Preakness winner Tabasco Cat scored over Derby winner Go For Gin. The year before that, in a Belmont won by Colonial Affair, Derby winner Sea Hero finished seventh and Preakness winner Prairie Bayou broke down. But the 1991 Belmont was something of a blueprint for separate Derby and Preakness winners meeting in the last leg of the Triple Crown. Preakness winner Hansel and Derby winner Strike the Gold met in that one, with Hansel holding on by a desperate head over the fast closing Strike the Gold.

CORRECTION - It has been pointed out to me that I overlooked the meeting in the 2001 Belmont between Derby winner Monarchos and Preakness winner Point Given, a Belmont dominated, of course, by Point Given. Mea culpa.