06/08/2011 2:03PM

Belmont Stakes handicapping: Animal Kingdom adept at running down speed

Barbara D. Livingston
Shackleford got off to a quick early lead in the Preakness, giving him an advantage he never relinquished.

Barry Irwin may not be worried about Shackleford. I am always worried by any speed horse in any race at any track at any distance.

Animal Kingdom is the most likely winner of the Belmont Stakes. The colt has raced six times at six tracks on grass, Polytrack, and dirt and never run anything close to a poor race. Those waiting for a bounce very likely will still be waiting after Saturday.

That said, I do not think Shackleford was anything like a fluke winner of the Preakness. In fact, if you kept watching past the wire, you would have noticed that Animal Kingdom never did get past Shackleford.

Given the history of the Belmont Stakes over the last decade – Sarava ($142.50), Birdstone ($74), Da' Tara ($79) – players will be searching for implausible longshots. I would rather focus on what we know than what we hope.

Can Brilliant Speed and Master of Hounds make up the 5 1/2 lengths they finished behind Animal Kingdom in the Kentucky Derby? I have no clue. What I know is that neither was really a factor at any point in the Derby. Could the extra quarter-mile of the Belmont help? Possibly. But there is no way to be sure.

Mucho Macho Man lost a shoe in the Louisiana Derby. The colt lost another shoe in the Preakness. Is that really an issue or is the hard-trying colt, with just 2 wins in 10 starts, just not quite good enough to beat the best of his generation?

Animal Kingdom ran by Nehro in the stretch of the Derby with complete ease. Nehro got out of the grind and waited for the Belmont. Animal Kingdom ran all out to be second in the Preakness.

Does the time off help Nehro or is he a horse who is just good enough to be close enough that you keep betting him, certain that the next time has to be the right time?

This game ultimately is about posing questions and trying to find answers. It is also about being honest in your evaluations. If you don’t know the difference between a good answer that you can support with facts and an answer that is problematic, you aren’t going to be right often enough to make a difference to your bottom line.

When I go over a race, be it a nonwinners-of-two lifetime at Parx or a Triple Crown race, I want to have more answers than questions. If I have more questions, I move on to the next race.

That, obviously, is not an option with a Triple Crown race. We all must have an opinion.

My opinion is that Animal Kingdom is going to run really well. The Derby winner’s best likely will be good enough to win the race. I do not see the distance as an issue. I do not see the Triple Crown grind as an issue. Certainly, the trainer and jockey are proven on the big stage. The Derby winner will be favored.

Can’t imagine Animal Kingdom will be as close as six lengths early as he was in Kentucky or as far as the 18 lengths back he was early in the Preakness. Figure somewhere in between, with more than enough time to make his run at the top.

Anybody see any early speed in this heat beyond Shackleford? I don’t.

After Shackleford went from first to fourth in the final few hundred yards of the Derby, it was assumed that the colt was a need-the-lead type who would never win a big race without an easy lead and moderate fractions.

Turned out Shackleford was not really collapsing in the Derby. He was actually going faster at the end of that race than he was at the end of the Preakness. His final quarter-mile in Kentucky was run in approximately 25.35 seconds. His final three-sixteenths in the Preakness went in 19.25. Take that out to a quarter-mile and it would be 25.60. And it’s likely it would have been more than that, as the colt was almost certainly decelerating.

Shackleford’s trainer, Dale Romans, understood the dynamics of both races perfectly. And it goes back to a theory I have had for decades. The accepted wisdom is that speed horses should slow down the pace to “have something left for the finish.”

I have always thought the opposite is true. Speed horses should use their speed to open up big leads and give the closers too much to do. A classic example would be Gary Stevens’ winning ride on Winning Colors in the 1988 Derby.

Even though the 2011 Derby fractions were historically slow, it kept all the late-runners in the race. Check out the traffic jam on the far turn of the Derby. It was, as Romans said, really run like a grass race. The closers stayed in the race and finished 1-2-3.

The very quick first fraction of the Preakness spread out the field. Even though the next six furlongs were moderate, that first fraction gave Shackleford an edge he never relinquished.

Shackleford is not likely to win the Belmont by slowing down the pace to a crawl. That could work, but I doubt it. If Animal Kingdom is within a few lengths at the quarter pole, I think he runs Shackleford down.

Shackleford nearly won the Florida Derby by running most of the closers (and the other speed horses) out of the race with solid fractions. He won the Preakness early, not late.

Check out the Belmont fractions and the early margins. And then find somebody who will bet you during the race. If they believe in conventional wisdom, they likely won’t understand what they are seeing.

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