NEW YORK — Talk about a tough crowd.
Dissed by the owner of Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom one day, dismissed as the third betting choice for the Belmont Stakes another, Preakness winner Shackleford is still considered an underdog for Saturday’s final leg of the Triple Crown.
What’s trainer Dale Romans to think about his long, lanky 3-year-old colt?
“He’s not getting the respect he deserves,” Romans said Thursday at Belmont Park, where racing was canceled for the day because of temperatures approaching 100 degrees. “Let’s see what happens after the race.”
Shackleford has been getting the cold shoulder for months, having been sent off at odds of 68-1, 23-1 and 12-1 in his last three races.
“Every race he’s run in he’s been a long shot and he’s run well in every one of them,” Romans said of Shackleford’s starts since a fifth-place finish in the Fountain of Youth on Feb. 26. “And he’s improved with every race. There are very few horses that have moved forward the more work they did. A lot stay the same, but he keeps getting better.”
After Wednesday’s post position draw, when Shackleford landed the outside No. 12 gate, more doubters emerged.
“I would not have wanted to be in 1 or 12,” Animal Kingdom’s trainer Graham Motion said. “The 12 is right by the grandstand. I’m happy he is in the 12. It will make him work a little bit.”
To that, Romans replied: “He’ll be the last one in and the first one out. He’s fast enough that he’ll be able to break and clear everyone anyway.”
At 1½ miles, the Belmont is the longest and most grueling test a 3-year-old will face. It’s a distance horses have yet to run, and are unlikely to do so again. Pedigree reveals which horses are bred for distance, and that’s likely why Animal Kingdom’s owner Barry Irwin is ignoring Shackleford — the son of a sire known for producing sprinters.
“I can’t see a horse by Forestry going a mile-and-a-half,” Irwin said after volunteering that he wasn’t worried about Shackleford.
That’s OK with Romans. Pedigree notwithstanding, he’s figuring Shackleford will set a moderate pace and then try to hold off his 11 rivals. The plan nearly worked in the Derby, and worked to perfection in the Preakness.
Front-runners have had their moments in the Belmont. The sprinter Bold Forbes won in 1976 by controlling the pace and holding on for dear life in the stretch, and more recently it was 38-1 shot Da’ Tara going wire-to-wire in 2008 and spoiling Big Brown’s Triple Crown bid.
On Saturday, the pressure will be on Shackleford’s jockey Jesus Castanon to strike the right balance.
“We may have gone too slow in the Derby because it allowed everyone to come home so fast and then we couldn’t hang on,” Romans said. “The Preakness was totally different. We went fast and then they struggled a little bit at the end and we still had stamina left to finish.”
After the Fountain of Youth, even Romans had his doubts about Shackleford’s potential. Two weeks after losing by 23½ lengths, Shackleford showed Romans that is might be worth it to try the big boys in the Florida Derby on April 3.
“He was training so well, he deserved another chance, and I’m glad we gave it to him,” Romans said. “He got a chance to redeem himself.”
Sent off at odds of 68-1, Shackleford nearly pulled off a huge upset in the Florida Derby, losing by head to Dialed In. Then it was on to the Derby, where Shackleford was again overlooked at odds of 23-1. The colt led into the stretch before finishing fourth.
Two weeks later in the Preakness, 12-1 outsider Shackleford led from the start and held off Animal Kingdom for a half-length victory. The win had Romans beaming.
Along with his life partner (and exercise rider) Tammy Fox and their two teenage children, the family celebrated a long-time-coming first Triple Crown race victory.
“It’s funny how little decisions during a year can make such a big difference in a career of a horse,” said Romans, who grew up on the backstretch at Churchill Downs and won his first race in 1987. “We were on the fence right up until entry time on whether or not to put him in the Florida Derby. On paper, he didn’t look like he belonged.”
Some still don’t believe he does. Romans isn’t one of them.
Follow Richard Rosenblatt on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/rosenblattap