ELMONT, N.Y. — By the time the post-position draw for the 143rd Belmont Stakes was completed Wednesday, two things trainer Graham Motion was pretty confident about had come to fruition.
A) His Kentucky Derby-winning charge Animal Kingdom was still viewed as the biggest threat in the final leg of the Triple Crown and B) his colt will likely hold the element of surprise when it comes to facing the horse perceived to be his main rival.
Animal Kingdom's loss to Shackleford in the Preakness Stakes did little to take away his luster as he was installed as the 2-to-1 morning line choice in the 12-horse field entered for the Belmont Stakes. Kentucky Derby runner-up Nehro is the narrow second choice at 4-to-1 with Shackleford the third pick at 9-to-2.
Though race strategy is never guaranteed until the gates open, the Belmont draw did make a couple key factors near-sure bets. Animal Kingdom drew post No. 9, leaving him free to take back wherever he is comfortable, and Shackleford will almost certainly have to use his front-running speed right out of the gate as he landed in the No. 12 outside post.
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Considering Shackleford was expected to be on the lead anyway, trainer Dale Romans wasn't too bothered by the colt's starting point. He did, however, concede the difficulty of possibly letting another horse set the fractions as he did with Flashpoint in the Preakness.
"In a 1½ -mile race, the post position isn't that important. He'll be the last one in the gate and hopefully the first one out of it," Romans said. "It's probably going to have to make us send him a little more leaving there than we might have. But he's fast enough he should be able to break and clear everybody anyway."
As much as Romans was shrugging off the post, Motion was borderline beaming. The soft-spoken horseman holds a great deal of respect for Shackleford's high cruising speed so he is not the least bit sorry if the son of Forestry ends up using up some of that energy early in the 12-furlong venture.
"I don't think (the No. 12) is a great post," Motion said. "For one, you're right in front of the grandstand and it's kind of an awkward spot to be loaded. It's not that long a run to the first turn so you kind of have to get in position.
"I'm happy (Shackleford) is in the 12. It will make him work a little bit."
The difference in running styles between the late-closing Animal Kingdom and Shackleford is just one aspect of their budding rivalry that adds to the intrigue.
Shackleford has the ability to put Animal Kingdom and fellow closers at his mercy should he get slow enough fractions. What Motion likes, however, is that even if Shackleford's jockey Jesus Castanon braces for an expected Animal Kingdom rally, he won't really know when or from where it's coming.
"(Their different styles) probably adds some spice to it," Motion said. "We know where (Shackleford) will be but he doesn't know where we'll be. That's good.
"It's going to be a tactical race, no doubt, and the pressure is on them how they handle it more than us I think."
If Shackleford and Animal Kingdom are a study in contrasts, Nehro is the proverbial happy medium. The son of Mineshaft is tactical enough to either sit up closer as he did during his runner-up effort in the Louisiana Derby or come from well back as he did when he was second again in the Arkansas Derby.
Fittingly enough, Nehro drew post No. 6 for the Belmont and where he ends up settling Saturday will depend on how fast they go in front of him.
"Nehro is very versatile so he can really be anywhere," said Brad Weisbord, racing manager for Zayat Stables, which owns Nehro. "In the Kentucky Derby, he was closer but I believe that was because of the slower pace. We're going to leave it up to the jock (Corey Nakatani)."
Mucho Macho Man, third in the Kentucky Derby and sixth in the Preakness, will break from post No. 10 and is the co-fourth choice at 10-to-1 along with Master of Hounds, who drew the rail.