BALTIMORE — Trainer Dale Romans isn't sure how the topic even came up but, over breakfast Saturday morning, he and his brother Jerry got to reminiscing about the journey that helped land them at Pimlico Race Course this week.
"We started talking about the old days of living at Ellis Park and ... how bad the stock was that we worked with back then compared to what we have today," said the Louisville native, who grew up working in the barn of his late father, Jerry, an accomplished Kentucky trainer. "Twenty-five years ago, no one thought I'd ever sit up here and talk about winning a classic race."
The fact that Romans was saddling Shackleford for the 136th Preakness Stakes was evidence enough of how far he had come.
The fact that he wound up hoisting the Woodlawn Vase minutes after the race was just sweet validation for his years of perseverance in an often unforgiving sport.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Two weeks after Romans saw his Kentucky Derby dreams fall short in the final sixteenth of a mile, the veteran trainer got to celebrate his first career victory in a Triple Crown race when Shackleford held off Derby winner Animal Kingdom by half a length to take the $1 million Preakness Stakes before 107,398 fans — the sixth-largest crowd in the race's history.
The jubilation that radiated from the Romans camp as the flashy Shackleford hit the wire at odds of 12-1 was juxtaposed by the heartbreaking reality that washed over Animal Kingdom's connections.
Had Animal Kingdom been able to get up in time, he would have headed to the Belmont Stakes on June 11 with a chance to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
Instead, Romans added a defining milestone to a career that had featured multiple training titles and a turf champion in Kitten's Joy, but no classic wins.
"We won the Dubai World Cup; we won a Breeders' Cup race. But to go down in history, you need to win a Triple Crown race," said Romans, who saddled First Dude to a runner-up effort in the Preakness last season. "It's unbelievable, it's phenomenal."
After losing by a head to Dialed In in the Grade I Florida Derby in April, Shackle-ford held a 1-length lead in the stretch of the Kentucky Derby after setting pedestrian fractions of :48.63 and 1:13.40.
But Animal Kingdom blew by him as Shackleford faded to fourth — leaving some to question whether he could do any better in the face of what stood to be a more demanding pace in the Preakness.
"We've all stuck together with this horse," said Michael Lauffer, who owns and bred Shackleford with partner Bill Cubbedge. "We had a bad race or two, but we stuck with our team, and it paid off."
The early fractions were decidedly swifter in the 13⁄16-mile Preakness as Hutcheson Stakes winner Flashpoint reeled off an opening quarter in :22.69 and half in :46.87 with Shackleford — who was winless in stakes company prior to Saturday — sitting just off his flank.
Such pace should have been welcome news for Animal Kingdom's camp as the 2-1 favorite rated next to last in the 14-horse field. But the leaders got a breather in the middle portion of the race, which was too much for his late kick to overcome.
"He ran huge, but he looked like he needed another sixteenth of a mile," said Graham Motion, trainer of Animal Kingdom. "Dale's horse kind of slowed it down in the middle of the race, and I think that hurt us. He came so close.
"I had my doubts (about catching Shackleford). I felt he was coming, but I had a feeling he wasn't going to get there. But the horse did nothing wrong."
As the field reached the final turn, Flashpoint's fatigue kicked in, and he began his descent into a last-place finish. Shackleford, meanwhile, was just getting his chestnut legs rolling as he struck the lead and had yet another 1-length advantage in the lane.
"When I asked him to pick it up, I could feel my horse get bigger," said Shackleford's jockey, Jesus Castanon, who also celebrated his first win in a Triple Crown race. "I knew Animal Kingdom was the only horse who was able to come get me."
Jockey John Velazquez began advancing Animal Kingdom between horses around the turn and had him clear in the five path for the stretch drive — similar to the move he pulled in the Kentucky Derby.
Unlike in the Derby, Velazquez said, Animal Kingdom was bothered by the amount of dirt coming at him early on. So even as he began to catch Shackleford in late stretch, the leader had too much to work with and crossed the wire in 1:56.47 over a fast track for his third win in seven career starts.
"When I wanted him to go, he got dirt kicked in his face, so I had to pull him farther back than I wanted," Velazquez said. "We were just too far back."
Astrology held for third after sitting just off the early pace, and Dialed In rallied for fourth after rating last throughout.
Both Romans and Motion indicated their horses could meet for a rubber match in the Belmont Stakes should each emerge from the Preakness in good order.
Shackleford earned a $550,000 bonus as a result of his prior participation in the Fountain of Youth Stakes and Florida Derby. That reward was nothing compared to what he gave his connections from an emotional standpoint.
"It just shows that if you keep doing it long enough and you get the right horses in your hands, anybody can do it," Romans said.