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.

gino More than 1 year ago
your last paragraph is race writing at its best, every bit as good as the race riding you describe...
Mona Stern More than 1 year ago
That was a great article. I, too, get tired of seeing the same jockeys over and over. The up-and-coming jocks should be given a chance. - Shackleford was tiring at the end so I don't think he has much of a chance at winning the Belmont. We'll see.
Ed Kay More than 1 year ago
This column gives me a sense of relief, because it's the first one I've seen that at least intimates at the reality of the day: the Preakness was a terrific horse race. This race showcased magnificent animals and their tough, experienced jockeys using all of their professional skills at the highest level of the sport. And this resulted in a thrilling finish. Here was an opportunity to amplify the excitement of our sport for would be fans. But instead of heralding this triumph of sport and entertainment, all of the earlier reports, that I've seen, led with things like, "I was shocked at the result." What makes the folks in your field think that anybody cares that a second rate pundit was shocked in the wake of his second rate handicapping? With all of the talk about the changes that horse racing needs, one of the places to start is to sweep away these old school reporters, pundits who destroy rather than build the sport. Whether they do it by direct attack or by omission, they need to be gone. Instead we need keen analysts, good writers who can appreciate and build on, rather than attack, this foundation - that is a good horse race.
Cheryl More than 1 year ago
I am annoyed that so many feel Shackleford's win should be frowned upon and rationalized away! It is refreshing that at least one commentator is telling it like it was. He and his jockey deserve the win! No rationaizations, Animal Kingdom and the rest of the entiries were behind him. He won fair and square. He has been improving for the last couple of races; this fourth in the Derby showed it. Sure, some of the earlier big players were out of the field. They lacked the health and stamina Shackleford has displayed. He wasn't a late comer to the racing season; with only a couple of races off his maiden; and so to speak, relatively still developing a sense of what it was all about. They were others that were very good horses in both fields in the 2 Triple Crown races as well. We have to consider the stamina and sturdiness of our horses on the track. He was one of those who has gotten better and better, while other 3 year olds considered more talented and more deserving are now retired due to injuries.
bud More than 1 year ago
Velasquez rode a rookie race , plowing in behind horses instead of following wide. Wont mention what I thought of Shackleford pre-gate ...musta been something he ate.
Left Bank More than 1 year ago
It's Velazquez (2 z's) - if you are going to be a miserly curmudgeon, at least spell the name to which your hatred is pointed properly. Go JRV - you are The Man! As for Shack - he won a slow renewal, but he will always be the winner. Haven't seen anyone say otherwise. Thanks, Jay!
bud More than 1 year ago
Hey lefty , over rated VelaZquez ( rides Todd Pletchers addicts )... wont be on Animal Kingdom in the Belmont...after that eyes shut ride...back to Albarado...
Karen More than 1 year ago
Jay, thank you for the article on Graham Motion. He's been a trainer in my virtual stable, my 'if I ever win the lottery and can buy race horses, who would I want to train them' trainer. I think what he and Dale Romans are talking about - building a rivalry between their two horses - is the sporting thing to do and I wish them both the best. That's the sort of thing we need more of, to bring interest back to the game. I've seen more mention of horse racing on mainstream TV and internet this year than I can remember in decades and I think the almost rivalry of Big Brown and Curlin started it, the almost rivalry of Rachel and Zenyatta built on it and now, maybe we'll see the rivals actually face off on the track. We can only hope.
Paul More than 1 year ago
Interesting that MTB was mentioned. His name came up after the Preakness among my friends. The consensus? MTB was 1st in the KD, 2nd in the Preakness, and 3rd in the Belmont. So, if AK does not hit the board, he will have achieved far less than MTB. One day, people may take another look at MTB and realize that he was a true champion whose physical constitution just ran down after a grueling Derby Trail that injured the likes of General Quarters. Some horses aren't as sturdy as others, both mentally and physically. I suspect that Shackleford is going to eat his way back into contention for the Belmont, whereas, Animal Kingdom is probably on a slide downward.
Blamethewinner More than 1 year ago
What a hopelessly poor comparison in an attempt by a Zenyattaphile to smear Rachel Alexandra's Preakness win. There are no similarities between Rachel and Shackleford other than the fact that they're both equines. Animal Kingdom was embraced much differently by the public than Mine That Bird. Take a look at the closing odds for the Preakness, Jay. Take that Z off your chest every once in a while.
Catmom More than 1 year ago
If you followed Shakleford since he first raced you would have seen the only winner in a group of horses that for some reason seem to be not quite stars. Pure hype on Uncle Mo and so forth clouded other horses racing in the Derby and Preakness. It happens every year and I firmly turn off the talking heads and study the horses. Shakleford is a work horse in progress. He is accused of slowing the Kd down so it made it hard for the other horses to follow the pace. WHAT? I recall that all the horses seemed to have 4 legs and were running. No one pulled out to increase the pace until the end. In the Preakness they had every opportunity to run. What held the rest back? Probably lack of TALLENT. Now for the Belmont it won't be who you think. My money is on Astrology ,if he runs, or Nehro.