BALTIMORE - In a Triple Crown era when most of the connections with good horses run away from participating in all three races unless there is an actual Triple Crown on the line, the best news from an exciting Preakness is that we may see the winners of the first two legs both come back to meet the challenge of the Belmont Stakes.
Nothing is definite, but the people behind Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom and tough Preakness winner Shackleford do not seem opposed to the idea of reprising in New York what is becoming a pretty nice rivalry.
Animal Kingdom blew by pacesetting Shackleford in the Derby to win by daylight. At Pimlico, in a race that is 110 yards shorter than the classic at Churchill Downs, Animal Kingdom got too far back, made up 3 lengths in the final 220 yards, but fell a half-length shy at the wire.
Shackleford's trainer, Dale Romans, had been knocking on the TC door for several years. He had won the Dubai World Cup and a Breeders' Cup race.
"But to go down in history, you need to win a Triple Crown race, and that's what we did today," Romans said.
"It shows that anybody that gets started in the horse business can do this, because Lord knows, 25 years ago nobody thought I'd sit up here and talk about a Classic race," Romans said. "We had a lot of horses, and some were the cheapest of the cheap.
"My brother and I were reminiscing today about some of the horses and how bad they were. It just shows that if you keep doing it long enough and you get the right horses in your hands, anybody can do it."
Romans is one of the sharpest people in the business. He reads races like the best gamblers. Most thought Shackleford could not win the Preakness because he faded late after setting a moderate pace in the Derby. Romans looked at the Derby as being like a grass race where all the closers stayed close enough to outsprint the speed in the stretch.
The Preakness unfolded differently. Flashpoint led through the first quarter mile on the straightaway in 22.69 seconds. That spread the field out. Shackleford, held at 12-1, was just a half-length back, but Animal Kingdom, the 2-1 favorite, was 18 lengths behind, 13th in the 14-horse field.
The pace then slowed dramatically. Shackleford, with cool jockey Jesus Castanon making all the right moves, ran the next 6 furlongs in just 1:14.3. So, after running Flashpoint back to last and taking over the lead with 350 yards to go, the colt had just enough to hold off the late charge of the Derby winner.
Shackleford ran the 1 3/16 miles in 1:56.47, which confirmed what we already know - this is not a fast group of 3-year-olds. But the top two are tough and competitive.
"He ran a huge race," said Animal Kingdom's trainer, Graham Motion. "I can't believe how he just cut through the field between the three-eighths pole and the quarter pole. He just came up a half-length short. That's why this race is so hard to win. It's tough to be disappointed when he ran so well. It's been quite a couple of weeks. I'm very proud of the horse. He's done so much in such a short amount of time."
Animal Kingdom's jockey, John Velazquez, explained why his mount had so much to do and not enough time to do it. He simply shied away from all the dirt that was flying back into his face. In the Derby, Animal Kingdom ran in a pack and that dirt hit him in the chest.
In addition to the $600,000 first prize, Shackleford's connections also got a $550,000 bonus as part of the Preakness 5.5, a program that ties stakes races together from Gulfstream Park with the Preakness at Pimlico. The same company owns both tracks. Shackleford got the bonus for participating in the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby before winning the Preakness.
Dialed In, winner of the Holy Bull and Florida Derby, was in line for a $5.5 million bonus with a Preakness win, but had to settle for fourth.
One of Shackleford's co-owners, Michael Lauffer, sold 2009 Preakness winner Rachel Alexandra a week and half before that race.
"We came up to the Preakness to watch her," Lauffer said. "We were just so proud of her. She was just a special horse that comes around once in a lifetime."
And he did get $10 million for the great filly, still serious money.
Romans did not even know about the bonus until somebody told him the week after the Derby. But he was always bringing Shackleford to the Preakness. He nearly won the race with First Dude last year. This time, he got the money.
There were 107,398 at Pimlico. The 13-race card generated more than $76 million in handle around the country.
No Triple Crown attempt. No great horses in the crop. Still, serious action in Louisville and Baltimore, with the potential of more in New York.
"Woody Stephens said a long time ago, Belmont is a speed horse's race," Romans said. "Everybody's tired at the eighth pole, so the horse on the lead can usually keep on going."
That strategy nearly worked in Kentucky. It worked perfectly in Baltimore.
The Preakness winner is named for Shackleford Island in North Carolina's Outer Banks where wild horses run free, just like the horse that stole the Preakness with a wonderful display of tactical speed, acceleration and heart.
The Derby winner ran another winning race. Animal Kingdom has never been worse than second in six races, racing with flair on dirt, artificial and grass, a throwback horse, the kind of emerging talent that could have a lot to say about the Breeders' Cup Classic, which will take place 6 months after his Derby win at the same track and distance.
Uncle Mo, the 2-year-old champion, was hinting at superstardom. That thought fell away in the spring. As we head for summer, we have two top-class 3-years with just 13 career races and the promise of some serious races down the road, hopefully starting with that one-lap tour of Belmont Park. *