ELMONT, N.Y. — The 143rd Belmont Stakes is being billed as the early battle for 3-year-old supremacy — a 1 1/2-mile standoff between Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom and his Preakness Stakes conqueror Shackleford, with 10 other sophomores trying to add a classic win to their résumés.
According to some of the main players in the final act of the Triple Crown season, there's more at stake than just divisional bragging rights Saturday.
How the talent of this crop is ultimately perceived could be determined in part by who crosses the finish line first in the "Test of the Champion."
A horse dismissed at odds of 20-1 dominated the Kentucky Derby. Then, in the Preakness, he was beaten by a 12-1 shot who had faded to fourth in the Derby. That's evidence for some that the current 3-year-old group isn't going to be remembered for much other than its parity.
Other than reigning juvenile champion Uncle Mo, who is recovering from a bacterial infection, no other sophomore male in this crop has recorded more than one Grade I win. The overall speed figures of the group are not considered brilliant, and there are many who think the most talented members of the class — i.e. Uncle Mo, The Factor and Premier Pegasus — are sidelined.
Count Dale Romans, trainer of Shackleford, and Graham Motion, who conditions Animal Kingdom, among those who take obvious issue with such conclusions. In addition to wanting their respective horses to one-up the other in the Belmont, both trainers want to show their colts' classic wins were not the product of beating up on inferior competition.
"I really hope that we can both come back and run good races again and prove that these races weren't a fluke because I don't think they were," Motion said. "Maybe they haven't run the numbers that people expect, but I find it very hard to believe that Dale's horse and my horse aren't going to go on to good things and I'm sure there are going to be others out of this crop that go on to good things."
Added Romans, "I think this is a good group of horses. I think it's a bunch of good ones who can beat each other more so than a bunch of bad ones."
That Animal Kingdom and Shackleford are even competing in all three Triple Crown races speaks to the constitution of both colts. Fact remains, though, neither is scaring anyone off.
A total of eight horses who ran in the Kentucky Derby — including the top seven finishers of the race — will be in the 12-horse field for the Belmont Stakes. Though he has just a maiden win to his credit, Kentucky Derby runner-up Nehro was made the 4-1 second choice in the morning line over Shackleford.
"I think it would be fair to say that I've seen a better group in the past," said trainer Tom Albertrani, who will saddle Blue Grass Stakes winner Brilliant Speed in the Belmont. "Animal Kingdom might be a horse showing his maturity now and turning into be a top horse. But going into the Derby, I think we were all saying the same thing: this looks like an average group of horses.
"There are no real giant killers so to speak."
Time will determine how Animal Kingdom and Shackleford are viewed but history says Saturday's outcome is almost certain to go through one of them.
Of the 21 matchups between Derby and Preakness winners in the Belmont, there have been only six times when a horse other than one of the classic winners prevailed. The last time that happened was 1993 when Colonial Affair triumphed over Kentucky Derby winner Sea Hero and Preakness victor Prairie Bayou, though it must be noted Prairie Bayou suffered a fatal breakdown 5 furlongs into the race.
In Shackleford's corner is the fact the Preakness winner has taken five of the last six meetings against Derby winners in the Belmont. The last five runnings of the Belmont, however, have been won by horses who did not take either of the first two legs of the Triple Crown — a streak owner Ahmed Zayat hopes his colt Nehro continues.
The bay son of Mineshaft has developed a bridesmaid reputation after running second in the Louisiana, Arkansas and Kentucky derbies, but his versatile running style is ideal for the sweeping Belmont oval.
"I think one of the things that has allowed him to be in the races ... is his attitude," said Steve Asmussen, trainer of Nehro. "He hasn't been overwhelmed. He's had three excellent races in a row but ... it's time to win one of these."
Master of Hounds was sitting 15th for much of the Kentucky Derby and closed to fifth in his first try over dirt, prompting his connections to ship him from Europe for the Belmont. Like Animal Kingdom, Master of Hounds probably will be making his run from off the pace along with Mucho Macho Man, third in the Derby.
How fast the pace in the Belmont will likely depend on the speedy Shackleford and if anyone presses him. Shackleford's sire, Forestry, was a top sprinter but his dam, Oatsee, has proven she can inject some staying power into her offspring. Her daughter Lady Joanne, who is by a sprint sire in Orientate, was a Grade I winner over 11/4 miles in the 2007 Alabama Stakes.
"He's got a lot of stamina on his bottom side and I think he's proven he has a lot of stamina," Romans said.
Respect may be hard for this crop to come by, but Motion, for one, already has the utmost regard for his horse and his budding rival.
"It seems like from a pedigree point of view there is no way (Shackleford) should handle (the distance) but he sure didn't seem to be getting tired in the Preakness," Motion said. "I've got a sneaking suspicion he's going to handle the distance just fine. Our horse is certainly bred to handle it so you'd like to think the two of them will be going at it at the end."