Preakness Stakes (gr. I) winner Shackleford is the third choice on the morning line for the June 11 Belmont Stakes (gr. I). He’s not necessarily the one to beat, but he’s definitely the one to catch, even after drawing post 12. The front-running chestnut set the pace in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) and pressed a quick pace at Pimlico.
On paper, none of the other 11 runners seem to have what it takes to go early with the son of Forestry. Peter Pan Stakes (gr. II) third-place finisher Prime Cut has shown some speed in his races as has Ruler on Ice and Stay Thirsty on occasion. With that in mind, Shackleford’s trainer, Dale Romans, has called “dibs” on the front end.
“He should be on the lead,” Romans said. “He can go there and we’ll see how far he can go.”
Mike Lauffer and Bill Cubbedge’s homebred broke his maiden in wire-to-wire fashion in his second career start last November. He was on the pace when taking an entry-level allowance in his 3-year-old debut Feb. 5 at Gulfstream. After his one lone poor effort in the Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth, he set the pace in the Florida Derby (gr. I) and was beaten a head by Dialed In. In the Kentucky Derby, he got away with a :48 3/5 opening half-mile and six furlongs in 1:13 2/5 before being run down by Animal Kingdom .
Two weeks later in Baltimore, he quickened the tempo while pressing a :46 4/5 opening half-mile and led through six furlongs in 1:12.
“In the Derby he got nice, slow fractions, but he kept everybody in the race and they came home really fast,” Romans said. “The Preakness was a little different. They went fast early and everybody was little out of their game. Getting a mile and a half (of the Belmont) will be totally different. If we can get a nice, slow, rhythmic pace…that would be perfect. I don’t want them to go too slow, but I could see a :50 half, easy.”
A :50 opening half may be a bit of a stretch.
Last year, the Romans-trained First Dude set a :49.19 opening half-mile in the “Test of the Champion” eventually won by Drosselmeyer. In 2009, Dunkirk set a quick :47.13 half-mile and held for second to Summer Bird. In 2008, Da' Tara set all the pace, including a :48.30 half. C P West recorded a :50.14 opening half in 2007 in the classic won by the filly Rags to Riches.
Being on the pace or coming from off of it, Romans knows the rigors of the surface and distance will take their toll on all 12 of the Belmont starters.
“If you watch the replays of most of the Belmonts, most of the horses look tired at the end. It’s a grueling test to go a mile and a half and none of them have ever done it before and most of them will never do it again.”
The opening fractions will more than likely depend on the consistency of the track surface rather than another horse pressing Shackleford and jockey Jesus Castanon. The sandy consistency of Belmont Park’s main track can be a very demanding and tiring surface. Romans knows this and that is why his colt has been based at the track for the last 10 days.
“Galloping over the track is very important, especially if it doesn’t rain,” he said. “It’s important that you’ve gotten up here and trained a little bit and gotten used to this deeper, cuppier racetrack.
“We’ve had a nice work over it and he’s getting over it well. It’s a good feeling to have a horse that is doing so well that you’re not trying to hold together; that you’re not worrying about him eating at night. We haven’t had anything to worry about going all the way through the Triple Crown.”
It sounds like his only worry is waiting for Saturday afternoon.