Three times from 1997 to 2002, thoroughbred trainer Bob Baffert brought horses to the Belmont Stakes with a chance to complete racing's first Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978. Each time, Baffert's horses fell short (sometimes agonizingly, sometimes decisively), and each time, he would find himself looking ever more reverently at the list of the 11 horses who, since 1919, had won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont in the same year. "For goodness' sake," Baffert says, "these were great horses, really great. And you appreciate them more when you get close to winning it."
So it was that those horses' legends were fortified just a little more deeply last Saturday afternoon at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, when Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom came up a half-length short in a desperate stretch drive and was beaten by Shackleford in the 136th running of the Preakness. It was an acutely painful loss not just for the horse and his handlers but also for racing fans; unlike recent Derby flukes (Mine That Bird in 2009 and Super Saver in '10), Animal Kingdom had borne the scent of genuine Triple Crown potential.
Winning three long races in five weeks requires a horse with speed, stamina and a durability often presumed lost in present-day American breeding. Animal Kingdom, however, was born to a Brazilian-bred miler (Leroidesanimaux) who raced into his 5-year-old campaign, out of a sturdy German mare (Dalicia) who ran 18 times at distances of 1¼ miles or longer. Animal Kingdom won the Derby easily, prompting conservative trainer Graham Motion to dream. "Of course I've thought about [the Belmont], but then I try to quickly think of something else," he said during Preakness week. "I do believe he's a brilliant horse."
But instead of validating Animal Kingdom, the Preakness exposed him. At Churchill Downs he was allowed to gallop easily behind a historically slow pace. Two weeks later Flashpoint ripped through the first quarter in 22.69 seconds (second fastest at the Preakness in 26 years), with Shackleford, who went off at 12--1, in tow. The damage was done to Animal Kingdom, who couldn't relax early as he did in Kentucky and fell much farther back, almost 15 lengths a half-mile into the race. Racetrack wisdom holds that a fast pace benefits fast-finishing horses by wearing out the leaders, but that is not always the case. "When the pace is slow," says Shackleford's trainer, Dale Romans, "you keep closers in the race."
Romans inherited his equine instinct. The Louisville native works out of Barn 4 at Churchill Downs, the same place his father, Jerry, worked until his death in 2000. Romans, 44, first took out an assistant trainer's license at 16 and, much like his father, toiled in the dregs of the game. His stock is far better now, and he is regularly among the leading trainers at Churchill Downs. But Shackleford is his first classic winner.
A grandson of the prepotent speed sire Storm Cat, Shackleford led the Derby in slow fractions but faded late. This time Romans asked jockey Jesus Castanon to go faster, and for Animal Kingdom the effort in getting close was enough to dull his finish and allow Shackleford to survive.
And enough to let the search for true greatness to continue, now at 33 years and counting.