BALTIMORE — In the less-is-more age of racing, getting a sustained rivalry to develop within the popular 3-year-old division has been a rare achievement in recent years.
Dale Romans is hoping that in addition to giving him his first classic win, the 136th Preakness Stakes can help provide the industry with that little gem as well.
There will be no Triple Crown coronation for a 33rd straight year, but the upcoming Belmont Stakes on June 11 could serve as an early battle for 3-year-old supremacy should both Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom and his Preakness conqueror Shackleford — who is trained by Romans — meet up again in the 11/2-mile journey.
Despite getting only about an hour's worth of sleep due to some well-deserved post-race celebrating, Romans dutifully met with the media at the Pimlico stakes barn, stopping off first at Starbucks to bring in some much needed caffeine.
The Louisville native, still trying to soak in the full impact of saddling his first winner in a Triple Crown race, said there is a better than average chance Shackleford would head to the Belmont Stakes as long as he bounces out of his latest effort in good order.
"I thought about going on to Belmont right away, but I went ahead and sent him back to Kentucky so I could get him with his regular team, go over him, watch him train a couple days, then make a decision," Romans said. "If he trains like he did coming out of the Derby, I don't know why we would pass.
"The Belmont is really a speed horse's race. The way he looked last night, the way he was feeling, I think it's better than 50-50 (that he goes to the Belmont)."
Putting Shackleford in position to wrest control of the 3-year-old picture is the obvious goal behind a trip to Belmont. However, Romans would not be upset to see Animal Kingdom take a swing at the final jewel of the Triple Crown himself.
Animal Kingdom ran by Shackleford as the latter faded to fourth after setting the early fractions in the Derby, but the son of Leroidesanimaux couldn't catch his new rival on Saturday despite Shackleford being part of a much more honest Preakness pace.
Considering the Belmont Stakes has the nickname of being "The Test of the Champion," it would be fitting if the two chestnut colts used the final leg of the Triple Crown to help sort who might ultimately secure year-end honors.
"It'd be great if we could develop a little rivalry within the 3-year-old division right now," Romans said. "I think these 3-year-olds are a lot better than people are giving them credit for, even without (2-year-old champion) Uncle Mo. I think this is a good group of horses."
Barry Irwin, chief executive of Team Valor International, which owns Animal Kingdom, was slightly less committal about going on to the Belmont, saying he and trainer Graham Motion would wait 10 days to two weeks before making that decision.
"The horse is tired. The race took something out of him. That was a hard race he had and he didn't totally eat up," Irwin said. "That is probably the toughest race he'll ever have in his life. I don't think he could have run better under the circumstances. Like Graham said, if it wasn't the Triple Crown we'd be thrilled to death. But it's tough to come that close and not win, especially when your horse runs that hard."
Added Motion, "Barry and I would both love to do the Belmont, but we've got to give him a week to see how he bounces out of this. But we would love to do it."
Romans suggested the fractions of 22.69 and 46.87 carved out by pacesetter Flashpoint might have taken some of the closers like Animal Kingdom and fourth-place finisher Dialed In out of their game because it forced them to use more speed early in order to keep contact with the field.
Motion and Irwin both maintained, however, they thought the fact Animal Kingdom had to face much more kickback on Saturday in what was just his second start on dirt was the main reason his run fell short.
"They had a lot of new dirt on the track yesterday, and I think it made it a bit harder for him adjust," Motion said. "I think it took him a little longer to figure out the track because he got so much dirt kicked back."
While Animal Kingdom's connections are confident both his pedigree and running style are ideal for Belmont, Shackleford's bloodlines appear to have more distance limitations in them.
Romans for his part thinks the son of Forestry has more stamina than he is given credit for, and that his high cruising speed will be an advantage around Belmont's sweeping oval.
"He doesn't need shorter. He ran 11/4 miles and got beat by three horses in a 19-horse field," Romans said. "If you look at the bottom side of his family, he should run forever. Maybe we got the best of both worlds — a little speed from Forestry and the endurance from (broodmare sire) Unbridled's side."
Aside from the top two finishers, the only other Preakness horse who appears likely for the Belmont is Mucho Macho Man, who ran sixth after losing a shoe.
"I think it's his kind of track and his kind of race," Kathy Ritvo, trainer of Mucho Macho Man, said of the Belmont.
Dialed In is less sure to head to Belmont, and trainer Steve Asmussen said Preakness third-place finisher Astrology would also likely bypass the race.
Asmussen is preparing to have Kentucky Derby runner-up Nehro for the Belmont, and others considered possible for the race are Santiva, Master of Hounds, Prime Cut, Alternation, Anthony's Cross, and Jaycito.