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Love ‘Shack’

Shack DerbyA thrilling rendition of the Grade I Preakness Stakes taught us many things this past Saturday. One, that the Kentucky Derby winner, Animal Kingdom, was no Giacomo and should remain a major player in this year’s 3-year-old division; two, that the Class of 2011’s talent has seesawed with maturity; and three, that Shackleford is one heck of a horse. 

I tell you, this colt Shackleford has more grit and determination that I ever expected to see in this year’s 3-year-old division. And I am admitting right now what a doubter I was about him entering the Derby in the first place. Now he’s among the top tier of his class, and demands we pay him some long-overdue respect. What kind of hardy horse can nearly wire the Kentucky Derby at 1 ¼-miles, then come back in two week and steal the Preakness Stakes in the same fashion? He’s certainly something special.

In the Derby, he set an absurdly pedestrian pace to try to steal the big show, but was caught in the final jumps of the race and faded to fourth. But in the Preakness, he pulled the opposite trick and won—the first part of the race was positively blistering, the first splits clocking in :22.69, :46.87, and 1:12.01. Shackleford spent the first ¾ of the race haunting Flashpoint’s every move, and managed to strangle the lead away from him in the middle of the final turn. From then on, it was Shack’s battle, and he valiantly fought off the challenge of the rail-riding Astrology before the Derby winner bared down on him from the outside. But Animal Kingdom was not meant to be a Triple Crown winner, and Shackleford prevailed to cross the wire half a length in front.

Prior to the race, anyone with money on the chestnut colt by Forestry had to be worried—Shackleford was kicking while being saddled on the turf course, and by the time he was led to the starting gate, he appeared agitated and washed out. The assistant starter circled him several times before he was walked into the gate. Most horses who get so worked up usually spend all their energy before the race has even begun, and the lathering shows that the horse is nervous or anxious. For Shackleford, though, this pre-race show was just the pomp before a career-making performance.

The Preakness proved to me that Shackleford has been criminally under the radar since his runner-up performance in the Florida Derby. Hindsight is always the clearest, obviously, but looking back at his past performances, it’s evident his 5th-place effort in the Grade II Fountain of Youth is what spoiled people’s confidence in him. Before he finished dismally far behind Soldat in that instance, he won two races in a row—his maiden at Churchill Downs, and then a 1 1/8th- mile allowance race at Gulfstream. By the time he ran in the Florida Derby, which was only two starts later, he was one of the longest shots on the board at 20-1. So when he nearly stole the Florida Derby from Dialed In, who only got to him with a nose-jab at the wire, he looked like a longshot trying to steal the shine off the rising star. As we can now see, it was actually Dialed In who was snuffing out the starshine of Shackleford. The colt was number 18 on the Derby earnings list when all was said and done—he’d only just made it into the race with enough graded stakes cash. As it turns out, Shackleford had yet to run his best race, even after a hugely impressive run in the Kentucky Derby.

As of this writing, the Belmont is setting up to be a rematch between the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, something that’s actually quite rare. In all honestly, the 1 ½-mile behemoth that is the Belmont Stakes looks to be too much for Shackleford to handle, but could be ripe for the uniquely-bred Animal Kingdom. Even if Shackleford fails to threaten in the Belmont, those who have hopped on his bandwagon should take heart for his summer and fall campaign. Here we finally have two horses with consistent form and now a budding rivalry. And with the return to the worktab of the sidelined champ Awesome Feather and talented Tapizar, this year is suddenly looking up.

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