On paper, the G1 Metropolitan Handicap looked like it was all To Honor And Serve or Saginaw’s to lose. The former had been previously unbeaten at a mile, and the latter had just reeled off 5 straight victories on the New York circuit. Alas, paper can be misleading. After watching the three other stakes races on the Memorial Day card at Belmont Park, it became clear that, at least for that day, paper lied, for Belmont was favoring speed. Instantly, the star studded field of six narrowed to two in my eyes: To Honor And Serve and Shackleford.
I will admit that by the half mile pole I was terrified. Shackleford was on the lead, but he was carving out blistering 22 and change quarters. With the powerful closer Caleb’s Posse and the tactical runner To Honor and Serve hot on his heels, I just could not see how Shackleford could continue forward and hit the wire first after such a fast first half. But as the field turned for home, I saw Shackleford dig in, and I knew that he was not going down without a fight. With my heart in my throat, I watched as Caixa Eletronica and Saginaw made sweeping moves only to flatten out. I watched the diminutive Jackson Bend give way after pressuring Shackleford early. I saw To Honor And Serve move off the rail only to have no answer to Shackleford’s powerful speed, and I stared, horrified, as I watched Caleb’s Posse streak up the center of the track like he had been shot from a rocket. Apparently Shackleford was not as worried as I was. He just kept powering forward, holding off Caleb’s Posse’s late rally to win the Met Mile by a nose. It had seemed impossible, but everyone's favorite horse had won!
Talk about sublime performances! This field was no pushover, as any handicapper will tell you. Though short on quantity, the quality of the field was superb; the field consisted of four Grade 1 winners and two previous claimers that had turned into multiple stakes winners. Whoever ended up winning the race was not going to have any easy time of it. So watching Shackleford blitz through a 44 and 3 half and then continue on to win was simply amazing. He was all heart, courage, and sheer will to win in the stretch drive, three qualities that set apart the winners from the losers. That is not to knock the rest of the Met Mile field because they all gave everything they had. No, that statement actually highlights what I’ll Have Another will need to show in the Belmont Stakes if he is to become the 12th Triple Crown winner.
So far, the Flower Alley colt has beaten the best this year’s very talented group of sophomores has to offer. But in order to achieve one of the sport’s greatest honors, he will have to do it again, only this time, he biggest challengers are coming off a 5 week rest, whereas I’ll Have Another will only have had 3 weeks off. After skipping the Preakness Stakes, Union Rags and Dullahan are back for another shot at the Derby winner. Union Rags will need a clean trip in order to win, but all Dullahan needs is more room to run. In the Kentucky Derby, he was a fast closing 3rd, missing all the money by less than 2 lengths. So far the Even the Score colt has not won on dirt, but I believe he answered any lingering questions about his main track form with his powerful Derby run.
There is a reason why the Belmont is called “The Test of the Champion.” Eleven times since Affirmed did it in 1978, eleven colts have won the Derby and the Preakness only to have their Triple Crown dreams denied in the mile and a half test of stamina and endurance. I remember well the last two attempts. Smarty Jones, I believe, was our best bet, but he lost by a nose at the very end. I will never forget that I was sitting in the cafeteria of the University of Kentucky watching what I hoped was history being made only to have my heart broken. Four years later, and it was Big Brown’s turn to attempt to end the drought, but we all know how that turned out. Now it is I’ll Have Another’s turn, and boy do I hope he has another and makes it a triple. A Triple Crown victory would lift the shadow that has hovered over our grand sport, and it would perhaps make fans for life out of those who have just tuned in to watch one colt’s brave run at history. As much as our fans want this, our sport desperately needs it. And if I’ll Have Another is to end our Triple Crown drought, then he will need extra large doses of heart, courage, and sheer will to win. He has been mentored by the great Lava Man, but I think that perhaps spending a little time around the hard-knocking Shackleford couldn’t hurt either.
You see, whether or not we have crowned him, Shackleford is King of His World. Even when he was in his 7 race win drought, he was still the most imposing horse around. Visitors to Dale Romans' barn do not walk through without stopping to pay their dues to Shack, he makes sure of that. And like a good King should, Shackleford acknowledges his fans (erm, subjects) and gladly eats any mints offered (or not) to him. Yes, I think the King would make a great mentor to our young hero, I'll Have Another. After all, Shackleford has all the qualities of a winner even when he is not the one standing in the winner's circle. He never quits, and I'll Have Another will have to keep trying even when all hope appears lost if he wants to be the one standing in the winner's circle at Belmont Park come June 9.