Trainer Neil Howard has been affectionately dubbed "Nervous Neil" by his friends and colleagues at Churchill Downs, but he was cool and confident as he accepted congratulations Sunday morning on his return to his home track.
Howard traveled to Pimlico for Preakness (gr. I) weekend with two horses owned and bred by William S. Farish, the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain and former chairman of the Churchill Downs Incorporated board. Both runners turned in spectacular efforts amid expectations that varied wildly.
The 4-year-old Mineshaft validated his status as one of America's top older horses with a romp as an odds-on favorite in the revived Pimlico Special (gr. I) on Friday. The 3-year-old Midway Road battled back in the stretch to finish second as a 20-1 long shot Triple Crown hopeful Funny Cide in Saturday's Preakness.
The big effort by Mineshaft was expected, but Howard admitted that Midway Road's run in the Preakness was more of a case of "taking a shot."
"It looked like maybe he was going to be fourth on the rail, maybe beaten a length and a half for second -- because the winner was gone," Howard said. "Then Robby (jockey Robby Albarado) switched sticks, he fought back and we thought, 'Wow'."
Howard said there is a chance that Midway Road could run in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), the final jewel of the Visa Triple Crown on June 7, but he said there's plenty of time to make that decision.
"That's something Mr. Farish and I are really going to look at," he said. "Pedigree-wise, it's kind of there a little bit. This is a nice horse, don't get me wrong, but the only knock on him would be his constitution. He's a little lighter type of colt. I think we might look at the Belmont in the same way we looked at the Preakness. There's never an easy race, but the Preakness looked like a two-horse race (between Funny Cide and Peace Rules), which it was -- and it looked like we fit in with the other six or seven horses."
If Midway Road does not run in the Belmont, Howard said the $100,000 Northern Dancer at Churchill Downs might be an option, as well as the Jim Dandy (gr. II) and the Travers (gr. I) later on at Saratoga.
Mineshaft's immediate future lies at Churchill Downs, where the son of A.P. Indy is scheduled to run in the $750,000-added Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I).
"Everybody was just thrilled," Howard said. "How fortunate could
you be to have a horse like that in your barn?"
Mineshaft has now won six of seven races since arriving in the U.S. from the barn of British-based trainer John Gosden -- including consecutive stakes wins in the New Orleans Handicap (gr. II) at the Fair Grounds, the Ben Ali (gr. III) at Keeneland and the Pimlico Special.