“There he is – go up and see him!”
These were the words of encouragement I spoke to my wife on Thursday morning at Pimlico when we arrived to see the final Preakness workouts. ”He”, of course, referred to her favorite 3-year-old in training, Shackleford, who had turned for home in the Derby in what seemed to be excellent shape after setting amazingly slow early fractions. However, as we all know, it simply was not meant to be for Shackleford and his supporters on the first Saturday in May. Instead the final few hundred yards of Churchill stretch were to be all about Animal Kingdom. As attention shifted to Baltimore, hardly anyone gave the front-running colt as much as a puncher’s chance.
Yet there he was this week looking regal as ever coming back from his gallop. The son of Forestry strikes quite the figure on the track with his gorgeous chestnut coat. As they brought him passed the stands, I blurted out somewhat awkwardly “Hey Shack – here’s your biggest fan!” while gesturing emphatically to my wife. We snapped what photos we could while she commented on what a beautiful horse he was. He had looked amazing in the Churchill paddock as well – at least as far as we could tell from the NBC broadcast in the comfort of our living room – but seeing him up close took things to a whole new level and left her somewhat breathless.
Later that morning she was able to speak with trainer Dale Romans and recount her Kentucky Derby experience. When Shackleford cut that corner and came into the stretch, she had lept to her feet and began screaming her rear-end off. Then she was forced to watch in dignified humility as the horse her husband was cheering for sailed passed her longshot in deep stretch. ”My husband’s horse beat me in the Derby – I need you guys to get him this time around!” she joked to Dale as he signed a track program. Upon returning from her encounter she promptly declared that Shack was going to be her Preakness pick and the only horse she would bet on to win.
“No way!” I scoffed. “Why throw your money away like that?”
After all, If the horse couldn’t win after those Derby fractions, what chance would he have against a hotter pace in the Preakness? Such considerations were trivial in her eyes. Forget all the handicapping, the fractional times, and the supposed knowledge of the sport. Sometimes it pays to have blind faith. All that mattered to her was that she had found a horse to cheer for and believed in her heart of hearts actually had a chance. In truth she did have a minor handicapping angle – repetitively insisting that the shorter distance of the Preakness would be more to Shackleford’s liking than it would Animal Kingdom’s – but it was the heart she was speaking with more than the mind (she had originally liked the horse because it reminded her of the alter ego of the character Dale Gribble, aka Rusty Shackleford, in the cartoon King of the Hill).
And it was the heart she was cheering with as her boy once again cut the corner and turned for home in the Preakness on Saturday. At first glance I thought he was going to be swept passed by several horses yet again, but then he found more; picking ‘em up and putting ‘em down with determined effort. My eyesight isn’t what it used to be when watching the track monitors, and it took me sometime in the confusion of the infield to figure out that the horse racing after him in the center of the track was my boy, Animal Kingdom. Suddenly our voices rose as the excitement reached fever pitch. Me screaming for my horse, and she for hers. Down the stretch and into history.
If there’s one thing I have learned over the years following this game, it’s that things are cyclical – even if the connection is obfuscated at first glance. It had been 4 years ago that we confidently strode into the Grandstands to see my beloved Curlin upset the Kentucky Derby winner. Two years prior we had danced with joy near the winner’s circle as her beloved Rachel Alexandra held off another Derby winner (Mine That Bird) at the wire. The in between years had been rather “meh” for us, as we were not fans of Big Brown or his trainer, Rick Dutrow (thanks to the absurd “paper rivalry” between he and Curlin), and hadn’t really felt an affinity with any of the 3-year-olds in last year’s crop once my boy Odysseus went down.
Had I been paying closer attention to that form cycle of on-off-on Preakness emotions, I may have walked out of the track with a lot more money in my pockets. Paying greater attention to Shackleford himself would’ve done even greater good.
All week long my wife was subjected to the musings of everyone with a voice (including me) about what the horse couldn’t do. She took it all in stride with dignified grace and quiet confidence. All she cared about was what he could do. For my part, I went into the race believing, as I always do, that the best 3-year-old wins the Preakness. I believe strongly that recent history invites such a conclusion. I just couldn’t see how Shackleford could be that horse? Looking back at that Derby defeat, I think I do see it now. The inside running lanes at Churchill may have simply been dead that weekend, and to the horse’s credit he did initially repel a very big move by Nehro before finally surrendering in deep stretch to the top 3 finishers.
Nobody was getting passed Shackleford today though. In my heart I’ll always believe the Animal would’ve reeled him in with another few hundred yards, but such arguments are trivial. The only thing that matters now is that for the rest of our lives, whenever we raise our Preakness glasses at Pimlico for a sip of tasty Black Eyed Susans – there he will be. Shackleford – enshrined along with the names of some of the greatest race horses to have ever lived.
He did it, babe. I’ll be damned, but he did it.