Shackleford, center with Jesus Castanon aboard, keeps the lead as he's… (Garry Jones / Associated…)
The sport of great expectations had to make do, yet again, with an exciting race and an excited audience Saturday. Hope springs eternal in horse racing, and then they run the Preakness.
There will be no Triple Crown in 2011. But then, there hasn't been one since 1978, when Affirmed held off Alydar three times in what amounted to three match races. Hearts pounded for each leg of that competition and the thirst for more was reasonable, because Affirmed's Triple was the third of the 1970s.
But storybook finishes are for storybooks, and a talented home-bred named Shackleford made certain of that, as most in a crowd of 107,398 held their breath and crossed their fingers for a different result. The Kentucky Derby winner, Animal Kingdom — upon whom all eyes focused all the way around the 1 3/16-mile race at creaky Pimlico Race Course — gave it his best before falling a half-length short of making his sport go gaga and strike up a loud rendition of "New York, New York."
The June 11 Belmont will now be a nice $1-million, Grade 1 race for a quality field of 3-year-olds. That's fine, but not the ultimate. America tends to get stirred up only about ultimates these days — bowls that are super and idols that are American — and the Belmont won't be either.
Give Animal Kingdom and his connections credit. As trainer Graham Motion said, "He ran huge. I thought for an instant he might get there."
Motion, with full knowledge of the thunderstorm of expectations that he was under, also said, "Shoot, we won the Derby and we just got beat in the Preakness. I would love to win a Triple Crown, as much for me as for everybody else. There is so much pressure to do that because it would be so good for the game."
Dale Romans spent several decades working his way up to where he could train quality horses instead of cheap claimers. So when his Shackleford stayed right at the shoulder of aptly named speed horse Flashpoint, who fizzled to last place, and opened up down the home stretch with enough gusto to hold off charging Animal Kingdom, Romans knew the value of what had happened to him.
"This puts you in the history books, a Triple Crown race," he said. "We won the Dubai World Cup and a Breeders' Cup race … but to go down in history, you need a Triple Crown race, and that's what we did today."
Romans also knew the value of winning all three Triple Crown races.
"It's a difficult task," he said. "You've got three races in five weeks. Very hard. But there'll be another Triple Crown winner. The current way we do it should not be messed with. When a super horse comes along, he'll win one."
Not quite super enough, Animal Kingdom was unable to overcome some unusual karma in the Shackleford camp.
Shackleford was ridden by the namesake of a deity, and was named himself after an island along the North Carolina coast that is known for its wild horses. Visitors to Shackleford Banks are warned that the feral horses who live there, reportedly descendents of shipwreck survivors, might bite if you get too close.
Jockey Jesus Castanon, who also rode Shackleford in his fourth-place Kentucky Derby effort May 7, said he felt his father at the finish. The senior Jesus Castanon trained horses in Mexico City, got his son started riding at age 16 and died in November of kidney disease.
"When I came to the wire," Castanon said, "he just came to me. I know he was there, watching."
Shackleford is owned by Michael Lauffer and Bill Cubbedge. Lauffer was an interesting sidelight player at the Preakness two years ago, when super filly Rachel Alexandra won the race. Two weeks before the race, Lauffer had sold Rachel to wealthy vintner Jess Jackson of Kendall-Jackson Winery. The price was $10 million, confirmed Saturday by Lauffer, and has certainly been instrumental in Lauffer building his own racing empire, much as the late Jackson had.
Shackleford delighted bettors with his $27.20, $10.20 and $6.80 payout and Animal Kingdom returned $4.20 and $3.60. Longshot Astrology, from Jackson's Stonestreet Stables, grabbed third place and paid $8.00.
The second choice in the race, Dialed In — who might be worth renaming Dialed In Late — made his second straight frantic rush to the finish and grabbed fourth, four places better than his Derby finish and his lightning 47-second final half mile.
The horses with the most California connections, John Shirreffs' Mr. Commons and Bob Baffert's Midnight Interlude, did not do well. Mr. Commons never got closer than sixth and finished eighth. Midnight Interlude, who won the Santa Anita Derby, coasted along near the front through three-quarters of a mile, then disappeared.
"He was right there," Baffert said. "He just quit."
On a day when the Triple Crown became, once again, a story for the future, racing still had positives. The attendance marked the first time since 2003 that the Preakness had topped the six-figure mark. It was also the sixth-largest ever here. And the betting total from all sources was $76,376,689, seventh-largest in the history of the Preakness, run for the 136th time.
Racing can talk up those numbers with pride, and it should. That will help carry some smiles until the autumn, and the Breeders' Cup. Then, they'll run the Juvenile Classic for the best 2-year-olds. Soon thereafter, talk of the 2012 Triple Crown will begin.
It is an itch that racing can't stop scratching.