As much as we celebrate the participation by local ownership teams, trainers and jockeys in the Kentucky Derby, it’s not very often that a true “home team” wins the big race on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs.
But a true Kentucky team won when Shackleford held off Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom and took the Preakness at Pimlico on Saturday, and that gives Kentucky racing reason to smile although the win assured that the Triple Crown drought has been extended to 34 years.
Dale’s 1st Classic
Shackleford’s gutty performance provided Louisville-born trainer Dale Romans with his first victory in a Triple Crown Classic. He just missed last year when eventual 3-year-old champion and beaten Kentucky Derby favorite Lookin at Lucky nailed First Dude in the same race. And Shackleford was on the lead in upper stretch in the Kentucky Derby and held well to be fourth, and Paddy O’Prado was third in last year’s Derby. His trainer has always believed that Paddy O’Prado might have won that Derby if not for a brief traffic problem at the head of the stretch.
But there was no doubt in this Preakness. Shackleford tracked the early pace set by the sprinter Flashpoint, and jockey Jesus Castanon – long one of the most underrated riders in the tough jockey quarters at Churchill Downs – offered a masterful ride.
Castanon was able to give Shackleford a breather with a relatively easy half-mile after a quick opening quarter-mile, and that was the difference in being able to hold off Animal Kingdom in the Preakness, which is a sixteenth of a mile shorter than the Derby.
Son of Trainer
The victory was another significant milestone in the career of Romans, the 45-year-old son of the late Churchill Downs trainer Jerry Romans. The younger Romans spent much of his youth growing up in the shadow of the Twin Spires of his home track, and worked alongside his father.
The Courier-Journal’s Jennie Rees recalled the younger Romans led his first horses into the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs at the age of 12. That’s a lifetime in racing and Romans is still very young by training standards.
In Good Company
Romans now ranks second in career victories at Churchill Downs – sandwiched between all-time leader Bill Mott and four-time Kentucky Derby winner D. Wayne Lukas. The trainers on either side of him are enshrined in racing’s Hall of Fame.
Romans’ special weekend became somewhat bittersweet when it was revealed that the versatile Paddy O’Prado had suffered a career-ending injury in an impressive victory in the Dixie Handicap on grass at Pimlico – his first start of what was expected to be a stellar 4-year-old campaign. But the victory by Shackleford was Romans’ first in the races that remain the most glamorous events on the U.S. racing schedule, and it has put the Louisville native in a secure spot on the national racing map.
The Preakness victory was also a breakthrough moment for the owner-breeder team of Michael Lauffer and W.D. Cubbedge. Both are relative newcomers to the sport, but Lauffer enjoyed an earlier moment in the national spotlight when he purchased part-ownership of Rachel Alexandra from owner-breeder Dolphus Morrison. He was there to celebrate at Churchill Downs when the filly won the Kentucky Oaks by a record-smashing 20 ¼ lengths in 2009. And he benefitted from the sale of the future Horse of the Year a few days later when Rachel Alexandra was purchased by the late Jess Jackson’s Stonestreet Stables for an undisclosed price.
The Paintsville, Ky., resident, a University of Kentucky graduate who operates JML Oil and Gas Company in that city, has been in the horse business for only a short time, but has displayed a near golden touch during that period.
The first horse he purchased was a broodmare named Oatsee, who was plucked from the 2006 Keeneland January Sale. The $135,000 purchase produced two foals for Lauffer, with the second being Shackleford. He sold the mare, then in foal to A.P. Indy, for $1.55 million at Keeneland’s 2008 November Sale.
Lauffer and Cubbedge, a Cannonsburg, Ky., resident who operates a natural gas business near Ashland, usually sell the colts they breed and keep their fillies for breeding purposes.
But there was something different about Shackleford. He was entered in the Keeneland September Yearling Sale in 2009 with a reserve price of $275,000. He brought a top bid of $250,000, and Lauffer and Cubbedge decided to buy him back. They sensed something was special about the colt, and decided to keep him to run and turned him over to Romans.
And the Preakness victory by Shackleford was a breakthrough for Castanon, a 38-year-old native of Mexico City with more than 2,000 victories to his credit. Castanon has never been flashy, but his strength and talent have kept him bubbling just below the surface of a riding colony at Churchill Downs that is headed by names like Leparoux, Borel and Albarado.
1st Classic Win
The Preakness was not only the first classic victory of Castanon, but also his first triumph in a Grade I race. Romans could have entertained offers from many of the country’s top jockeys to ride Shackleford, who lost the Florida Derby by a nose to eventual Derby favorite Dialed In. But he stuck with a rider he had grown to admire and trust through many rides at Churchill Downs.
Down the road, a rubber match with Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom looms in the Belmont Stakes. Derby runner-up Nehro and Irish import and fifth-place Derby finisher Master of Hounds also figure to be in that field.
The 1 1/2-mile Belmont, the third jewel of the Triple Crown, will be a significant challenge. But the Preakness and Kentucky Derby runs by Shackleford prove he belongs in the conversation of the major contenders for the upcoming “Test of the Champion.”
His Kentucky-based team just might have the best 3-year-old in the land.