05/23/2011 12:46PM

Shack Attack

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Replays are a wonderful thing. I was alive when there was no such creature, and yes, that makes me a hundred and thirty-eight. Never mind. The Preakness from last Saturday deserves any number of views -- unless you are Graham Motion, then once was enough -- so at one point I turned off the sound, stripped out the colors and disregarded all other distractions save the blaze on the face of the breakaway leader and the determined progress of the horse closing down the middle of the Pimlico stretch.

It was 2009 all over again.

Now, a flashback of only two years hardly qualifies as psychologically troubling. I've got perfectly vivid memories older than that, not to mention those recurring dreams, like Satan's spawn rising from the mouth of my dead Lutheran minister to purge the Earth of righteousness, and the other one about forgetting the combination to my high school locker. Anyway, a little deja vu never did no harm, and I knew I'd seen that 2011 Preakness before.

This time, instead of the little gelding named Mine That Bird trying to run down the big speed filly called Rachel Alexandra, it was a pair of honest chestnut colts in the starring roles. And just as the Derby winner failed to catch the speed horse in 2009, Animal Kingdom came up short last Saturday, as Shackleford seized the day.

In 2009, after his runaway by more than eight lengths in the Derby, Mine That Bird was written off as a New Mexican aberration who benefited from a wet track and a rail trip from Calvin Borel that was by turns exciting and suicidal. Two weeks later at Pimlico, the result was more difficult to spin, since Rachel Alexandra by then had been sanctified as the second coming of Kincsem, and Mine That Bird was still shrouded in denigration. How could a fluke -- even a Derby winning fluke -- come within a length of toppling a saint? On top of that, Mine That Bird even had enough trouble on the final Preakness turn to add a whiff of "what if?" to the equation.

After the Preakness, Mine That Bird's fortunes went south as Rachel's soared. They never met again, but here's hoping the same is not said about this year's entertaining classic winners. If one of the red colts can't be Affirmed, then the least they can do is try to behave like Affirmed and Alydar, if their people will give them the chance.

I also celebrate the deviant nature of the Derby and Preakness winners in terms of how they got their jobs done. The pace in the Derby was agonizingly slow, which meant Animal Kingdom should have had no chance and Shackleford should have held on. By constrast, in the Preakness Shackleford's pressing of a hot pace should have killed him off and set the table for Animal Kingdom to romp. The best, most insightful handicappers went to bed Saturday night scratching their heads raw, only to awaken Sunday morning to the same mysterious racing world in which horses always have the last word.

****

Before turning the page, take one more look at the work of Jesus Castanon through the final quarter mile of the Preakness. It was a clinic.

Having disposed of the desperate Flashpoint, Castanon made the turn into the straightaway with his hands low on Shackleford's neck. He used those hands and a subtle weight shift to key a lead change, then turned his stick inside the three-sixteenth and gave his colt a classic, right-handed series -- one, a pause, then a quick two-three. Message recieved, Shackleford dug in. Castanon threw a shorter cross, and a couple of strides later gave both a backwards glance at Animal Kingdom and his colt another, single crack right-handed. Shackleford, now tiring, shifted slightly left toward Astrology, but Castanon was ready. He pulled his stick through in a blink, and one left-handed smack was all it took for Shackleford to straighten his course and be duly impressed with the urgency of the situation. Castanon spent the last yards showing the whip and hand-riding, a perfect flourish to a virtuoso performance.