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Shackleford a quirky horse, even in his early days
LEXINGTON, Ky. − At 10 minutes to post last Saturday, many spectators and handicappers didn’t think Shackleford looked like a horse who could win the Preakness Stakes. The Forestry colt had been bucking in Pimlico’s infield saddling enclosure, and on his way to the starting gate he appeared washed out, wet with sweat and lather. Even experienced horse observers thought Shackleford was too tense to run his race. Of course, he won at odds of nearly 13-1.
The Preakness result confounded conventional wisdom, but Shackleford’s owners and earliest teachers testify that it was right in character for the colt that his quirks didn’t prevent him from winning the Preakness and leading most of the way in the Kentucky Derby before finishing fourth. Now they say he could be a legitimate contender for the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes if trainer Dale Romans opts to point him for the June 11 classic.
“The Preakness is the only race where they saddle the horses on the turf course,” said Mike Lauffer, who bred and owns Shackleford with partner Bill Cubbedge. “It’s totally different, and I think he was a little shook up by that. He’s a horse who’s really a calm horse, but he gets a little excited when he’s close to race time.
“And another thing I’ve noticed,” Lauffer, 57, said. “Some horses are free-sweaters, and some don’t sweat. He sweats a lot. He’s done this his last two or three races. You’re always a little bit anxious that it’s a bad sign, but when they go ahead and run a good race and they’ve done it before, you don’t worry about it. I think everyone also thought he was a horse who had to get the lead, but we tracked Flashpoint for the first six furlongs and then took charge. He’s a smart horse, and the jockey can do anything he wants with him.”
“I think he’s got everybody’s attention a little bit now,” Belvedere Farm owner Marty Takacs said with a laugh. Takacs attended the Preakness and admits he, too, was a little apprehensive about the horse’s nervous appearance before the race. “But Oatsee’s a little hot,” he reasoned, referring to Shackleford’s dam, “and this horse can get a little hot on you, too.”
Takacs was there at the very beginning, when Oatsee foaled Shackleford on Feb. 25, 2008, at Takacs’s Belvedere Farm. Takacs handled the colt’s earliest lessons in everything from wearing a halter to showing off his most athletic walk at the yearling sales.
“That whole Oatsee family has little quirky things about them, and even the mare did,” said Takacs, 62. “Oatsee would let you do anything with her, but when you went to turn her out, she just bolted on you. Every time. She was big and could pull your arm right out of the socket.
“He was a funny little fellow when we started trying to get him to walk for the sales,” Takacs said of Shackleford. “He was very aggravating. He wouldn’t do what we wanted him to do; he’d just stop or back up, and then if he did walk he’d start bouncing around. But we worked with him every day. He’s a funny horse. Once he learns what you want him to do and why you want him to do it, there’s no problem, he just goes on about his business. But you have to be patient with him. If you’re impatient, you’re not going to get anything done.”
Lauffer and Cubbedge, 59, had intended to sell Shackleford at the 2009 Keeneland September yearling sale. But the market was sluggish in the wake of the global economic crisis, and Shackleford’s sire, Forestry, was going through a cold spell. When live bidding on Shackleford stopped at $250,000, it was the highest auction bid Lauffer and Cubbedge had gotten on one of their yearlings up to that point. But it wasn’t enough. They bought Shackleford back at $275,000.
“We were absolutely thrilled when we bought him back,” Lauffer said. “We really loved this colt from the day he was born. You get attached to certain ones, and he was special like that.”
At Takacs’s suggestion, Lauffer and Cubbedge sent their strapping chestnut colt to Webb Carroll Training Center in St. Matthews, S.C., where 2002 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner War Emblem also got his early breaking and training. Shackleford arrived Sept. 25, 2009, and it didn’t take long for Carroll to experience the obstinate streak Takacs had seen.
“He wasn’t studdish or coltish or silly or simple or anything like that,” said Carroll, 65. “He was just very cautious, especially about tight places.”
Like the starting gate.
“He was a horse that most things suited, but that didn’t suit him,” Carroll said. “He’d stand and watch other horses go through it, and he never shied, never spooked. But he was set in his mind that he didn’t like that. So I never gave him the opportunity to dislike it any more than he already did. I sensed that if we locked arms and threw him in there or twitched him and lip-chained him, I’d create a bigger problem.”
The solution came through repetition and patience, much of it performed by his only rider at Carroll’s place, Jorge Navarro, and training center manager Travis Durr.
“If you don’t finesse this kind of horse, you might get him in the gate, but he’ll scramble or rear up and flip over backwards or freeze,” Carroll said. “Then you’ve got a nice horse that’s got a major gate problem all his life. So we’d just stand there with him and let him watch 14 or 15 horses go through the gate while we rubbed on him and patted him, scratched his tail, and just loved him up. Sometimes we’d take the rider off and just lead him through. We put a lot of love and labor into that horse, and it took a long time. Then, after all this piddling with him, one day − and this is what’s so unique about this horse − he just walked in the damn gate. We were shocked. And he did it the next day, and he did it from then on.”
When Shackleford left South Carolina on May 27, 2010, he was over his gate issues. Carroll cautioned trainer Dale Romans and Romans’s longtime partner, exercise rider Tammy Fox, that the colt didn’t like tight spaces.
“Tammy told me when he got there, he did everything right,” Carroll said. “She said he walked into the gate like a trooper. You’ve got to give a horse time, and we all did that, including Dale and Tammy. It’s a team effort.”
That patient handling has made the difference with Shackleford, his connections believe. Now the question is whether Shackleford will go to the Belmont, and, if so, whether his pedigree and temperament will suit the 1 1/2-mile distance.
“You might think not, but then you look at this horse and the way he runs,” Takacs said. “He got a hold of the race in the Preakness and controlled it. He backed it up down on the backside. It’s like Dale said − there are a lot of horses that win the Belmont on the front end. And that’s true.
“That horse couldn’t have done what he did and responded to what that jockey asked him to do if he had just been going bonkers,” he said.
Said Lauffer: “We’ve always had confidence in him going a mile and a quarter or whatever. It’s the way he trains, and he’s got so much heart and a great pedigree, too. He’s just a big colt with a big stride, and I think those are the colts that really get the classic distances with. He’s a very smart horse, he’s a very controllable horse, and he’s rateable. He’s a fast horse with a fast cruising speed, but he still can relax and gallop down the backstretch, then turn in a good effort with a lot of heart down the stretch.”
Next time around, bettors might revise their view of Shackleford if he’s sweaty and fractious in the paddock. Chances are, he won’t be underrated again.
“That’s the great thing about this business,” Takacs said. “You get surprised all the time, and you learn something new every day.”