Photo: Eclipse Spotswire - Sue Kawczynski
Neither horse was perfect, but on this day, two of America’s best would be at their most brilliant, and the real winner would be fans of thoroughbred horse racing.
The Metropolitan Handicap has a rich and storied history. As many fantastic editions as there have been of Belmont Park’s great mile, I cannot think of any better than last year’s classic. The traditional Memorial Day feature combined the perfect mix of front running prowess pitted against stretch running power. Shackleford was a gorgeous, big chestnut, who when allowed to run free on the lead, could be tougher to catch than a New York City taxi in the rain. The 2011 Preakness winner was coming off a big win at Churchill Downs and was primed for his best. Meanwhile, the romping winner of the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile had run two sharp races while closing fast in shorter races. For Caleb’s Posse, the one-turn mile of the Metropolitan was what he was born to do. Not all six-horse fields are created equal, and last year’s Met was a wonderful example. Besides Shackleford and Caleb’s Posse, the other four competitors were all excellent. Multiple graded stakes winners, To Honor and Serve and Jackson Bend were shown big respect by the bettors, while win machines Caixa Eletronica and Saginaw are still going strong to this day. Before the highly anticipated 10th race on the holiday card rolled around, everyone knew that nothing would be easy in this one.
And so it would be. Breaking one spot off the rail, the copper colored fan favorite shot right to the lead as he had done so many times before. Shackleford was where he wanted and needed to be. It was now up to the rest of the field to try to come and get him.
While the third betting choice took his familiar place as the leader of the pack, so too would Caleb’s Posse and rider Rajiv Maragh find a comfortable spot. As big and imposing as Shackleford was, Caleb’s Posse was the opposite. He was a little horse with a big engine who preferred to sit back and watch the early developments of a race before kicking it in late. So it came to no surprise when on this day, the little horse carrying pink silks went straight to the back of the pack, far removed from Shackleford and the four others who tried to stay close to the leader early. Shackleford, with John Velazquez, who was subbing for his injured regular pilot, Jesus Castanon, in the irons, carved out a fast quarter of :22.77, with the race favorite, To Honor and Serve in hot pursuit on his inside. To gain just a little more breathing room between him and that one, as well as the advancing Jackson Bend, Shackleford threw down the gauntlet with a brutal second quarter of 21.96. It succeeded in gaining a little space between him and his closest competition, but would it take to much out of the the four-year-old son of Forestry? While Shackleford was doing his thing on the front end, Caleb’s Posse began to uncoil his old reliable rally. Quickly gaining on the rest of the field, it was clear that the Donnie Von Hemel charge would make his presence felt before it was all said and done. In fact, nearing the end of Belmont’s far turn, it looked like every horse in the race had a chance to win.
Shackleford would have none of that, though. In a clear demonstration of class and determination, the speedster cut the corner coming out of the turn, and effectively ended the chances of To Honor and Serve. The future Woodward hero would keep trying, but with that one decisive move, Shackleford had already broken his heart. One by one, the rest could only respond with a “no mas” to the relentless speed of Shackleford. First it was the NY-bred star, Saginaw, and then the mighty mite, Jackson Bend who would not go on. Shackleford had already thrown down a 1:08 and change, and still he hit the stretch running. But not everyone would succumb.
Caleb’s Posse continued to uncork a Forego like move on the far outside, as Shackleford dug in on the rail. Passing Caixa Eletronica and To Honor and Serve proved to be no problem for the little horse in pink. At the sixteenth pole he set sail after Shackleford, and at long last the classic was on.
It appeared to the world that last would be first as Caleb’s Posse gained on Shackleford quickly. He cut into the margin with each rhythmic stride. Fifty yards from the wire, he was already close and still closing fast. Surely Shackleford, after all the work he had already done, would not be able to answer the oncoming power of Caleb’s Posse.
Quitting was not in Shackleford’s vocabulary, though. Somehow, some way, Shackleford found one last surge. I don’t know if he could have done it even a few more yards, but Shackleford looked Caleb’s Posse in the eye, and would not let the other horse, who had rolled by him in Breeders’ Cup, get to the wire before him.
The photo showed that the last few desperate yards of Shackleford had succeeded in winning the Met Mile by a nose. A finer race would not be seen in 2012. It was everything good about horse racing encapsulated in one amazing stretch drive.
Connections of the main combatants attempted to sum it all up within a few sound bytes.
“He’s as gutsy as they come,” said winning trainer, Dale Romans. “This is a spectacular horse.”
“It looked like I had him measured. I was hoping I had him.” said the disappointed rider of the runner-up, Rajiv Maragh.
I call Caleb’s Posse the runner-up, but that does not seem to be really fair to a horse that ran such a fantastic race. It was a one minute and thirty-three second masterpiece for both horses, and both of them truly ran too good to call either a loser.
Shackleford would race only four more times, with three losses before a rousing victory to close his career. Due to injury, Caleb’s Posse would never race again. But on this day, May the 28th, no other race in their careers would matter. It was an ideal clash of styles. It was two excellent runners leaving everything out there for the world to see. It was a career defining moment for both. The 2012 Met Mile between Shackleford and Caleb’s Posse was one for the ages.