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Front-running Shackleford emerging as Preakness contender

So much of what trainer Dale Romans saw on May 7 was exactly what he would have drawn up if he could have plotted his fantasy Kentucky Derby.

In a race where honest fractions are normally a given, Romans saw his front-running entrant Shackleford get away with a half-mile in :48.63, the slowest since 1947.

As the 19-horse field reached midstretch, it was still Shackleford's chestnut frame at the head of the pack with Dialed In — the race favorite and his Florida Derby conqueror — nowhere in sight.

"I thought we had the perfect trip," Romans said.

It was, until that final sixteenth of a mile got in the way.

Had the Kentucky Derby finish line been shoved back about 250 feet, Romans would have been drowned in well-wishers congratulating him on capturing the most famous prize in his sport.

Instead, the Louisville native is bringing Shackleford into Saturday's Preakness Stakes — the second leg of the Triple Crown — hoping to duplicate everything about Derby Day except the part where the son of Forestry faded to fourth place in deep stretch.

It was Team Valor's Animal Kingdom who claimed the roses with his late charge, but the fact that Shackleford was in control for all but the final portion of the 11/4-mile test has garnered him a new round of supporters for the 13⁄16-mile Preakness.

Such an ideal pace scenario would be unlikely given the Preakness probables, but the race's shorter distance combined with the perception that Pimlico Race Course is kinder to speed has elevated Shackleford's stature.

"I was kind of surprised at the reaction I got from a lot of people that ... they're more on his bandwagon after the Derby than they were after (his runner-up finish in) the Florida Derby," Romans said. "(On Derby Day), it seemed like closers were running well all day, and he still held in and ran a big race. It seems like everybody's more impressed with him now than they were when he took second to Dialed In."

If the theme of Romans trying to steal the Preakness with a speed-loving colt sounds familiar, it's because he nearly pulled it off 12 months ago.

Last year, Romans brought front-running First Dude to Baltimore off a third-place finish in the Blue Grass Stakes and ran second in the Preakness, beaten by just three quarters of a length by champion Lookin At Lucky.

Though Shackleford and First Dude share the same near-miss history in stakes races at this point, Romans says Shackleford has more versatility.

"This horse has a lot better turn of foot," Romans said. "First Dude was a big freight train who just got going and kept going. This horse can quicken a lot easier than First Dude could. He can sit off them; he doesn't have to be in front."

That theory could be put to the test Saturday because Hutcheson Stakes winner Flashpoint and Dance City, third in the Arkansas Derby, are likely contenders to lead the early fractions.

As much as Romans maintains that Shackleford can take back if needed, he also says that any horse trying to match strides with him is going to do so at his own risk.

Mike Lauffer and Bill Cubbedge's homebred colt has had four starts since Feb. 5, but he bounced out of the Kentucky Derby with surprisingly high energy, leaving Romans to say there is still something in reserve if he can get half as good a trip as he did on the first Saturday in May.

"Coming out of a race like that can back you up and just knock you out," Romans said. "With him, it looks like he went the other way. It looks like he's moving forward. He jumped right into his feet (jogging), and he was bouncing and playing.

"He's acting like he's pretty happy about what he did."