05/21/2011 8:38PM

Preakness: Shackleford proves gutsier than more talented rivals

Jenny Burgos
A determined Shackleford holds off Animal Kingdom at the finish.

BALTIMORE — Shackleford isn’t going to be remembered as a great Preakness winner, or even an above-average Preakness winner. He and the other 3-year-olds this season constitute one of the weakest Thoroughbred crops in years. Yet give the colt credit: He’s a gutsier fighter than the vast majority of horses who may have more raw ability.

After he turned into the Pimlico stretch Saturday, Shackleford should have been ready to surrender after a grueling early battle for the lead. Animal Kingdom had begun to accelerate on the turn and was launching the kind of rally that had carried him to victory in the Kentucky Derby. The second leg of the Triple Crown appeared within his grasp. But the resolute Shackleford held him off by the margin of a half-length, disappointing the many fans who hoped that Animal Kingdom would be the colt who ended the 33-year drought without a Triple Crown winner.

Animal Kingdom had no excuse. The Preakness had looked as if it might present him with an ideal setup because of the presence of the fast sprinter Flashpoint. He was almost certain to set a faster pace than the moderate tempo in the Derby, and a hot pace figured to hurt the horses chasing Flashpoint and help the stretch-runners.

Conventional wisdom suggested that the ideal tactics for the speedy Shackleford might be to let Flashpoint go and settle into a stalking position behind him. But Shackleford himself had other ideas. In the paddock and in his prerace warmup, the colt was sweaty and manifestly unrelaxed. NBC’s knowledgeable commentator-on-horseback, Donna Barton Brothers, observed, “Shackleford is hot and wound up. I don’t like anything I’m seeing.” Analyst Gary Stevens predicted that jockey Jesus Castanon wasn’t going to be able to restrain his mount: “There’s going to be a hot pace.”

However, Dale Romans, Shackleford’s trainer, was unperturbed about his 3-year-old’s demeanor at Pimlico. “He’s been like that in almost all of his races,” Romans said.

As soon as Flashpoint popped out of the gate and went to the lead, Castanon let Shackleford go after him, and the two speedsters raced the first quarter in 22.69 seconds. This was the fastest opening quarter in the Preakness since 1999. The three horses who set the pace that year wound up finishing seventh, eighth, and 10th. That’s what usually happens when horses set a sizzling pace at a classic distance.

However, the racing world has now learned that this is Shackleford’s best game. When he ran in the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park this winter, Shackleford was dismissed at odds of 68-1 against a field of fast front-runners (including Flashpoint), but he battled for the lead and disposed of all the other speed horses. When the stretch-running Dialed In hooked him, he fought back tenaciously. He lost a close photo finish, but he was ennobled by the defeat and established himself as a contender for the Kentucky Derby.

However, his performance at Churchill Downs seemed to contradict the normal logic of handicapping. He set an extraordinarily slow pace, by Derby standards, which should have left him with reserves of energy after he turned into the stretch with the lead. But he surrendered and faded to finish fourth. Why did he run poorly under seemingly favorable circumstances?

Romans had a theory. “I’m a firm believer,” he said, “that when the pace is slow you keep the closers in the race. The closers flew home in the Derby. But [in the Preakness] they didn’t have the same kick.”

Graham Motion and John Velazquez, the trainer and jockey of Animal Kingdom, agreed that the faster pace put their colt in a less comfortable position than he had enjoyed in the Derby. At Churchilll Downs, Velazquez said, “I was right behind the other horses” in clear striking position. But after the first quarter-mile at Pimlico the whole field was strung out, and Animal Kingdom found himself 13th in the field of 14, with dirt flying in his face and 18 lengths to make up. This was going to be a test.

Shackleford and Flashpoint raced head-and-head for three-quarters of a mile, slowing down in the second and third quarters as several of their rivals - Midnight Interlude, Astrology, and Dance City -moved within striking distance. But none of them had a big kick to deliver. Shackleford inherited the lead and, Castanon said, “I knew I still had some horse.”

But how much?

All eyes watching the races searched for the green and red silks of Team Valor International. Moving three-wide, Velazquez guided Animal Kingdom through traffic on the turn, passing nine horses. In the stretch, he still had 3 1/2 lengths to make up. He couldn’t do it.

Motion said, “He ran huge. I’m thrilled with how he ran.” But, in truth, Animal Kingdom’s race was not huge. Shackleford’s time of 1:56.47 for the 1 3/16 miles was the slowest in the race since 1993. Because of the circumstances of his victory, the winner is probably a better racehorse than the raw numbers suggest, but a worthy Triple Crown aspirant should have been able to catch him.

(c) 2011, The Washington Post