Capuano brings Derby dream to Withers with Shackqueenking

Capuano brings Derby dream to Withers with Shackqueenking
Photo: Courtesy NYRA

Gary Capuano suffered an anguishing defeat when his Captain Bodgit engaged Silver Charm in a torrid stretch duel in the 1997 Kentucky Derby only to miss by a head.

The Maryland-based trainer has been trying to erase that painful memory since, and he hopes Shackqueenking can take a small step toward accomplishing that by capturing the Grade 3 Withers Stakes on Saturday at Aqueduct.

“This will be the test for him, that’s for sure,” said Capuano, 57. “We’ll see what kind of race he runs, if he can step up to the challenge. He’s got to run a little better race than he has to compete at that level. He’s still got to move forward.”

Capuano has had countless young horses pass through his barn since that brutal Derby defeat. He constantly clings to the dream — that one might emerge as the next Captain Bodgit — only to be disappointed.

“I haven’t had anything comparable to him. I’ve had some decent horses but nothing of that caliber yet,” he said. “We’re hoping to move forward with this one and see where he takes us anyway.”

Shackqueenking, a $20,000 purchase at Keeneland’s September Yearling Sale, has done enough in his young career to merit a shot in the 1 1/8-mile Withers. An April 17 foal, the son of 2011 Preakness winner Shackleford has never failed to hit the board in five career starts, all of them at Laurel Park, for Pocket 3’s Racing.

His record includes two wins and two runner-up finishes for earnings of $110,020. His two victories both came at 1 1/16 miles: when broke his maiden in his second start Nov. 27 and when he nipped Ain’t Da Beer Cold in the Dec. 26 Howard County Stakes. It appeared the seven-furlong distance worked against him when he finished third in the Jan. 16 Spectacular Bid Stakes.

If it sounds as though Shackqueenking has competed more frequently than most promising young horses, well, he has.

“He’s pretty tough. I’ve run him more often than I would have liked to,” Capuano admitted. “But he comes out of his races really good, and he’s such an energetic type horse. He just wants to keep doing. He wants to go, and I’m letting him go.”

Shackqueenking can place himself on the Derby trail with a big effort in the Withers, where he is scheduled to be ridden by Trevor McCarthy. The race awards Derby qualifying points on a 10-4-2-1 basis to the top four finishers.

Aqueduct was the site of one of Capuano’s greatest triumphs. When Captain Bodgit followed a Florida Derby victory with another win in the Wood Memorial, he arrived at Churchill Downs as a prime contender for the Derby. He lived up to his billing. He and jockey Alex Solis unleashed a bold move, and it appeared they might surge ahead when Silver Charm, with Gary Stevens aboard, moved out ever so slightly during the stretch run.

“He drifted out. There was a little contact. I had to take up a little bit,” Capuano said. “You think about if we had been able to keep a straight course the whole way, but it’s hard to tell. There wasn’t much difference between the two.”

Silver Charm put his trainer, Bob Baffert, on the path to a mind-blowing career highlighted by a record-tying six Derby triumphs and counting. Capuano, meanwhile, has searched for more than two decades for another sophomore worthy of vying for the roses.

“They are a little harder to come by in my market than they are somewhere else. But you keep trying and you know you can get there,” said Capuano, accepting the reality that the margin of a head can make a world of difference.

2021 Withers (G3)

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