The winner of the Grade 1, 1 3/16-mile Preakness Stakes last year over Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom, Shackleford has transformed his game this year – from speedball that runs his heart out in route races to fearsome sprint and middle-distance star.
The race for 3-year-olds and up drew a field of eight including the promising speedster Emcee and Grade 1 Cigar Mile Handicap winner Jersey Town.
Research shows a victory would vault Shackleford into select company: Since the introduction of the graded stakes system in 1973, it appears only four horses have won Grade 1 races at six furlongs farther than 1 1/8 miles – Foolish Pleasure, Dancing Spree, Precisionist and Ruffian. Three of those four were named champions and later inducted into the Hall of Fame. Dancing Spree defeated Safely Kept in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint in 1990, but the filly received championship honors.
Shackleford, the 6-5 favorite on the morning line, emerged from his heart-stopping victory in the Met Mile a tired horse, and trainer Dale Romans sent him home to rest in Kentucky with a fall campaign in mind. Lately, however, Shackleford has been signaling it’s time to hammer on the running shoes and get back to business. He shipped into Saratoga from Kentucky on Thursday morning and looked vibrant and stunning upon arrival.
“He’s ready to go,” Romans said. “I think this is the time of year the older horses’ division shakes itself out and the 3-year-olds merge. I think Game On Dude is on top and Shack ranks among the best of them.”
Shackleford, who drew the inside post, is on schedule to compete in the Vanderbilt and the Grade 1 Forego at seven furlongs on September 1, with the ultimate goal being the Breeders’ Cup. Right now, Romans isn’t looking past Sunday. When considering the possibility of joining the four horses that won Grade 1 races at such disparate distances, he said, “It might stamp you as great. Those are great horses on the list.”
Godolphin Racing continues its quest to land a Grade 1 victory with Emcee, a 4-year-old son of Unbridled’s Song, who has won three of five starts and drew just outside Shackleford in post position No. 2.
Trained by Kiaran McLaughlin and 2-1 on the morning line, Emcee flaunted his abundant talent in sharp efforts in the Grade 3 Tom Fool Handicap presented by Corona Extra on the inner dirt course at Aqueduct Racetrack in March and the Grade 1 Carter Handicap on the outer dirt there a month later. In the Tom Fool, he engaged in a torrid speed duel before finishing third; in the Carter, he lost his footing at the start and then loomed boldly before finishing behind Jackson Bend, Caleb’s Posse and Shackleford.
He returned on May 5 at Belmont Park and sailed to an effortless allowance victory, earning a 107 Beyer Speed Figure at seven furlongs.
“He is doing great and peaking for the Vanderbilt,” McLaughlin said. “He was unlucky in the Carter and left the gate awkwardly that day. We gave him a little time because he ran so fast last time [in the allowance race]. He’s a fast horse and a good sprinter. I hope I never stretch him out.”
When healthy, the 6-year-old Jersey Town, 10-1 on the line, can run with the best of them, as he showed winning the Cigar Mile in 2010 with a 111 Beyer Speed Figure. Last year at Saratoga, he turned in another giant performance when second to Jackson Bend in the Grade 1 Forego.
Jersey Town went to the shelf after a sixth-place finish last November in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, and has only raced once since, suffering a half-length defeat in a minor stakes race in March at Gulfstream Park.
When asked what’s been bothering Jersey Town, trainer Barclay Tagg said, “Right now, nothing. [The Vanderbilt is] what I’ve been pointing to. He’s just had a lot of issues, ligaments, tendons. Things here and things there. He keeps getting things and they heal up quick.”
Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas sends out the rugged 6-year-old Hamazing Destiny (12-1), who picked up the first graded-stakes win of his career in the Grade 3 Maryland Sprint Handicap on Preakness Day at Pimlico.
“A Grade 1 is always tough,” Lukas said. “He travels well, he runs well everywhere. Once in a while, he’ll get a surface he doesn’t care for, but most times he’s pretty good. I expect him to run well here.”
Trainer Marty Ciresa is high on the chances of his 6-year-old gelding Sloane Ranger (15-1), winner in June of the $150,000 Le Vine Memorial at seven furlongs at Parx Racing. In his most recent start, Sloane Ranger almost knocked off two runners headed to the Whitney – Rule and Flat Out – in the Grade 2 Monmouth Cup.
Used to sizzling sprint paces, Sloane Ranger dueled on the lead at Monmouth through a quarter-mile in 25.43 seconds and a half in 49.72.
“That 25 did him more harm than good,” Ciresa said. “To run 25, you have to strangle them. I thought I was going to win that race and thought I had them in a spot.
“You know, he’s really coming around. Every year, he gets a little better, a little more mature. When he was young, he loved to run but didn’t have much upstairs. He loves racing, running, shipping, everything about it.”
Trainer Steve Asmussen will run an uncoupled entry of Rothko (8-1), winner of the Grade 3 Aristides at six furlongs on June 2 at Churchill Downs, and Justin Phillip (10-1), second two races back in the Grade 2 True North Handicap on June 9 at Belmont Park.
Completing the field is multiple stakes winner Poseidon’s Warrior (30-1), shipping in from Parx Racing for trainer Robert Reid, Jr.