If Shackleford could talk, he’d have a friendly message for Animal Kingdom heading to Saturday’s 143rd Belmont Stakes: “Stay in touch now, ya hear?”
Close touch, that is. If Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom has any expectations of becoming only the 12th horse to win both the Derby and the Belmont (excepting Triple Crown winners), he’ll have to stay up with expected pace-setter Shackleford, who beat Animal Kingdom in the Preakness by doing just that.
Though Animal Kingdom is the odds-on favorite at 2-1 for the Triple Crown’s longest and oldest leg, he faces a distinct danger of the 1 1/2-mile length swallowing him up if he falls too deep into the 12-horse field.
So the game plan this time is for jockey John Velazquez to keep Animal Kingdom purring up front as he breaks from the No. 9 post, matching Shackleford’s early speed out of No. 12. Animal Kingdom’s trainer Graham Motion said it certainly won’t be a replay of the Preakness, when his horse fell way back and simply had too much ground to make up as he hit the finish line a half-length behind Shackleford.
“I think Johnny and Animal Kingdom were surprised how much dirt came back,” Motion told the New York Times. “Both have learned since then, and he won’t be out of touch.”
Motion told the Daily Racing Form that his horse should have an advantage despite Shackleford’s history of running either first or second early in four of his seven races, including all three wins.
“We’ll know where he’ll be, but he doesn’t know where we’ll be,” Motion said. “It’s going to be a tactical race. There’s no doubt about it.”
Providing, of course, that Animal Kingdom stays up front. That has not been his modus operandi lately, as he’s had to charge from at least the 10th spot or deeper — he fell to the 13th and 12th position in the Preakness and Derby — in four of his six races.
If the Belmont’s length doesn’t chew them up, Animal Kingdom and Shackleford could have a finish for the ages.
“I’d really like to see these two come down the stretch together,” Motion told the Daily Racing Form. “I think it would justify the results so far, and start a rivalry.”