For Shackleford, being the hunter rather than the hunted was a difference between victory in Saturday's Preakness Stakes and his loss two weeks earlier in the Kentucky Derby.
On the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs, Michael Lauffer and Bill Cubbedge's chestnut colt inherited a lead no one else seemed to want and proceeded to set the slowest pace seen in more than six decades in the Kentucky Derby. Despite all the advantages that typically come with being in such a position, Shackleford could not hold the lead for the entire 1 1/4 miles and weakened to fourth, 3 3/4 lengths behind Animal Kingdom.
In the Preakness, Shackleford's jockey Jesus Castanon was more than willing to allow the speedy Flashpoint to set the pace. It was a demanding one, too - :22 3/5 and :46 4/5 - and while Shackleford was only a half-length behind the leader for nearly a mile, and thus bearing the brunt of some of that early pace, his position was undeniably ideal. Once Flashpoint began the process of fading nearing the top of the stretch, Shackleford was right there to assume command, gaining a crucial advantage over Animal Kingdom, who would become his most serious stretch challenger.
Animal Kingdom had shown a tremendous closing kick in the face of Shackleford's slow pace when taking the Kentucky Derby by nearly three lengths, and was sent off as the 2-1 Preakness favorite largely on the widely-held belief the pace of the Preakness would undoubtedly be faster and thus more beneficial. What many pundits and fans did not foresee was how much ground Animal Kingdom would concede early. It turned out to be too much.
Animal Kingdom finally got rolling around the far turn. Though still 12th after six furlongs, the margin between him and Shackleford narrowed to five lengths. Still, the energy needed to reduce the gap so soon perhaps lessened the impact of his stretch kick. Animal Kingdom ran a brave race in defeat, falling a half-length short of a noticeably tiring Shackleford, but the early ground loss was simply too much to overcome and cost him a chance to advance to next month's Belmont Stakes and a chance at Triple Crown glory.
"We were just too far back," Animal Kingdom's jockey John Velazquez admitted afterwards. "When I wanted him to go, he got dirt kicked in his face. So then I had to pull him farther back than I wanted him to be. By the time I had the chance to go, he was coming, but it was too late."
Graham Motion, the trainer of Animal Kingdom, pointed to the second quarter-mile time of :24 1/5 as a factor that helped Shackleford.
"They ran quick early. That was fine," Motion said. "I think they just slowed it down in the middle of the race and that really helped that horse."
For Shackleford, who had attempted to steal both the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby on the front-end and failed, the road to victory in the future might be in having a target to chase. Animal Kingdom, who raced in the clear in the Kentucky Derby in his first ever race on dirt, discovered in the Preakness that one of the downsides to racing on the surface is kickback. It's something he will more than likely have to get used to.
A rematch in the June 11 Belmont is a possibility as neither the connections of Shackleford or Animal Kingdom ruled out participating in the 1 1/2-mile "Test of the Champion" in the immediate aftermath of the Preakness. Though no Triple Crown will be on the line, it's a competitive rivalry like this one that will make this year's three-year-old divisional race worth keeping an eye on.