Sometimes, the most time-tested, reliable tenants will blow up right under your nose. Sometimes, the thing that you’re chasing is beyond reason and reach.
Shackelford, a washed-out, fractious mess minutes before the Preakness — a throwout — found healing and calm reserve while running beneath a brilliantly executed ride by Jesus Castenon and outlasted Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom, a shocking result in the eyes of most.
Though the upset winner of the Triple Crown’s second leg was viewed dimly by most before he was led past a huge and boisterous crowd to be saddled, even one with a favorable opinion of Shackelford’s chances in the Preakness would likely have backed off after observing a nervous, sweating animal being prepared to face the starter. The avoidance of speculation in the short-term futures of creatures in such condition is taught in Handicapping 101. But Shackleford was all business in Baltimore and after setting what appeared a suicidal pace for a quarter-mile, Castenon gave his compliant mount a breather that was not far from a vacation, which was probably worth the half-length he held over the Derby winner at the wire.
The result was as disappointing to those who saw Animal Kingdom as a horse with the potential to sweep the Triple Crown as it was surprising to the legion of bettors who for sound and well founded reasons dismissed Shackleford. This is a game that routinely humbles everyone who plays including a horse that is probably the best 3-year-old in the land and a certain favorite in what will not be an anticlimactic Belmont Stakes.
With the Triple Crown now having eluded every Kentucky Derby winner since 1978, the post-Preakness conversation turned immediately to the obvious, now perennial question: Will the most rarely won title in American sport ever again fall to a dominant animal? And, if not, why?
Perhaps the many demands of three races in five weeks are beyond the modern American thoroughbred, which is now prepared for the task with as few as two races in four months.
Are the horses sent in pursuit of such a difficult accomplishment ill prepared to stay the course? Too coddled? Too fragile? Are they genetically unsuited to a challenge this physically demanding? All of these things?
Perhaps altering the spacing of these races and the distances at which they are run would produce more marketable results but the importance of the Triple Crown would be diminished if not tarnished beyond recognition. Under no other circumstance will a 3-year-old be asked to race three times in five weeks and the Belmont Stakes, at 12 furlongs, is as much a dinosaur nowadays as it is “The Test of the Champion.”
More than three decades during which this throne has been vacant suggests strongly that while the breed is no faster than it was during the era in which winning the Triple Crown was indeed daunting but not impossible, the modern thoroughbred, whether the bid is derailed in Baltimore, in the last stride of the Belmont Stakes or somewhere on the road to the Kentucky Derby, is wanting in both durability and stamina. Will we ever see another Triple Crown winner? With each passing year, the prospect appears more remote.
Several trainers asked this question after the Preakness answered, “Yes, but it will take a super horse.”
It has always taken a super horse. Eleven winners of the Triple Crown all qualify. But American breeders no longer produce such animals and we may well not see another. The potential emergence of an American “super horse” seems only to be more and more remote.
The presence of Animal Kingdom and Shackleford in the Belmont Stakes makes it an interesting finale to an otherwise disappointing Triple Crown. Still, should a horse other than the Derby or Preakness winner rise to the occasion, the Triple Crown of 2011 will conclude as it began, with a 3-year-old division in chaos, the fifth year of the last six in which the series has seen three different winners.
What remains the centerpiece of American racing may, in the 21st Century, be an illusion.
Originally Posted on ESPN