The 136th Preakness Stakes on Saturday went to Shackleford, who dug in through the stretch after setting taxing early fractions in a speed battle with Flashpoint and withstood the charge of the Kentucky Derby winner, Animal Kingdom, in the stretch to produce a neck victory. Shackleford was able to get a slight breather in the middle stages of the race on the front end, which is likely what gave him the extra added edge he needed to survive and get his colors painted on the weather vane at Pimlico.
He also has more guts and determination than any other three-year-old in the class this year. He first displayed it to us in the Florida Derby, where he nearly pulled off an epic upset at long odds and made Dialed In work every inch of the way to get past him. He showed a glimmer of it on the First Saturday In May, when he led in the stretch of the Derby and made it tough for the first three finishers all the way to the end. It finally paid off in victory in the Preakness, where Shackleford just continued to demonstrate why internal fortitude is just as important a factor in who wins a horse race as who the fastest horse is.
Let us not forget the fine effort of the Derby winner, Animal Kingdom, in running second in Baltimore. He fell much further behind the front-runners in the early stages behind the speed duel that was going on. He and Dialed In were so far behind at one point, it made one think they were in a separate race. However, John Velazquez nearly pulled off a great come-from-behind ride aboard Animal Kingdom, missing by what turned out to be a very thin margin. It is the second time in three years that the Derby winner almost came from the clouds to run down a front-running Preakness champion. Don't forget that Mine That Bird was this close to Rachel Alexandra at the finish of the 2009 Preakness and she ran with the pace all the way that day, much the same way Shackleford did on Saturday.
So, where does this leave us? I think it could set up an epic edition of the Belmont Stakes in nineteen days. If both Animal Kingdom and Shackleford go on to New York (and the early indications are that they will), we could be seeing a fine rivalry develop. Throw in the return of Derby runner-up, Nehro, in the Belmont, along with Peter Pan winner, Alternation, New Yorker Mike Repole's Stay Thirsty, and maybe more Mucho Macho Man and we could be in store for a ringing rendition of the 143rd Belmont Stakes in a few weeks. I know that a lot has been said about the lack of quality of the three-year-old crop this year, but after the first two legs of the sport's most important series, I think those labels of inadequacy are misplaced.
Tune in again tomorrow for more from They Are Off. For right now, I am Gone... GOODBYE!