Shackleford arrived at Saratoga Race Course fit and feisty the morning of Aug. 2, ready to tackle seven other runners in the $400,000 Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap (gr. I) Aug. 4.
The 2011 Preakness (gr. I) winner was the picture of vitality, his copper coat glistening in the sunlight as he rambunctiously jumped into the air while stretching his legs after a van ride from Kentucky. Coming off a scintillating, front-running score in the Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I) May 28 at Belmont Park and backing up to six furlongs, the 4-year-old son of Forestry will attempt to use the Vanderbilt as a springboard to the Sept. 1 Forego (gr. I) for owners Mike Lauffer, Bill Cubbedge, and Phillips Racing Partnership.
"I was pointing toward the Whitney originally, but when he was tired after the Met Mile we backed up a little bit," trainer Dale Romans said. "This was in the back of our mind, with the Forego as the main objective. I don't think this will take as much out of him as the Whitney."
Shackleford has transformed his game this year, from route-running speedball to fearsome sprint and middle-distance star. The 121-pound highweight for the Vanderbilt and 6-5 favorite on the morning line, he will break from post 1 under jockey John Velazquez. Romans said he will gallop on the main track in the two days leading up to the Vanderbilt, in addition to schooling in the paddock and starting gate.
With top sprinter Caleb's Posse recently retired to stud duty at Three Chimneys Farm, Shackleford towers over his competition. The race for 3-year-olds and up attracted 2010 Cigar Mile (gr. I) winner Jersey Town and promising speedster Emcee, but the former has only raced once since a sixth-place finish last November in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (gr. I), and the latter finished fourth behind Jackson Bend, Caleb's Posse, and Shackleford in the Carter Handicap (gr. I) in April after losing his footing at the start.
Jersey Town, a 6-year-old son of Speightstown campaigned by Barclay Tagg for Charles Fipke, was second by a half-length in a minor stakes race March 31 at Gulfstream Park. Last year at Saratoga, he was second to Jackson Bend in the Forego (gr. I). His Cigar Mile score earned a 111 Beyer speed figure.
When asked what's been bothering his runner, Tagg said, "Right now, nothing. The Vanderbilt is what I've been pointing to. He's just had a lot of issues, ligaments, tendons. Things here and things there. He keeps getting things and they heal up quick."
Emcee was an effortless allowance winner for Godolphin Racing at Belmont Park May 5, when he registered a 107 Beyer going seven furlongs with a 4 1/2-length victory margin.
The 4-year-old Unbridled's Song colt, who has won three of five starts, drew just outside Shackleford in post position 2. He engaged in a torrid speed duel before finishing third in the Tom Fool Handicap (gr. III) in March, then loomed boldly in the Carter but could not overcome the ground lost from his poor beginning.
"He is doing great and peaking for the Vanderbilt," trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said. "He was unlucky in the Carter and left the gate awkwardly that day. We gave him a little time because he ran so fast last time. He's a fast horse and a good sprinter. I hope I never stretch him out."
Alan Garcia, part of a 115-pound impost, rides Emcee at 2-1 on the morning line.
Trainer Steve Asmussen will run an uncoupled entry of Padua Stables' June 2 Aristides Stakes (gr. III) winner Rothko, 8-1 on the morning line from post 4 under 116 pounds including Julien Leparoux, and Zayat Stables' Justin Phillip, second two races back in the June 9 True North Handicap (gr. II) at Belmont Park.
Rothko is a 4-year-old son of Arch who ran second last time out in the June 29 Iowa Sprint Handicap. Justin Phillip, a 4-year-old son of First Samurai who won the 2011 Woody Stephens Stakes (gr. II), comes off a third-place finish in the July 8 Mr. Prospector Stakes at Monmouth Park. He breaks from post 3 under Ramon Dominguez carrying 115 pounds.
Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas sends out the rugged 6-year-old Hamazing Destiny, who picked up the first graded stakes win of his career in the Maryland Sprint Handicap (gr. III) on Preakness Day at Pimlico Race Course.
Barry Butzow and Westrock Stables' Salt Lake runner last finished fourth in the True North and will be ridden by Joel Rosario from the outside post carrying 116 pounds.
"A grade I is always tough," Lukas said. "He travels well, he runs well everywhere. Once in a while, he'll get a surface he doesn't care for, but most times he's pretty good. I expect him to run well here."
Trainer Marty Ciresa is high on the chances of his 6-year-old gelding Sloane Ranger, Vicky Schowe's homebred winner of the $150,000 Le Vine Memorial going seven furlongs at Parx Racing in June. In his most recent start, the son of Parker's Storm Cat almost knocked off two runners headed to the Whitney, Rule and Flat Out, before finishing third in the Monmouth Cup (gr. II). Used to sizzling sprint paces, Sloane Ranger dueled on the lead at Monmouth Park through a quarter-mile in :25.43 seconds and a half in :49.72.
"That :25 did him more harm than good," Ciresa said. "To run :25, you have to strangle them. I thought I was going to win that race and thought I had them in a spot.
"You know, he's really coming around. Every year, he gets a little better, a little more mature. When he was young, he loved to run but didn't have much upstairs. He loves racing, running, shipping, everything about it."
Completing the field is Swilcan Stable's multiple stakes winner Poseidon's Warrior, a 4-year-old Speightstown colt shipping in from Parx Racing for trainer Robert Reid, Jr. to run at morning-line odds of 30-1.
$400,000 Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap (G1)
Saturday, Saratoga Race Course, Race 10, 5:56 p.m. EDT
3-year-olds and older, 6 furlongs
PP., Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer
1. Shackleford (KY), J. Velazquez, 121, D L Romans
2. Emcee (KY), A. Garcia, 115, K P McLaughlin
3. Justin Phillip (KY), R.A. Dominguez, 115, S M Asmussen
4. Rothko (KY), J.R. Leparoux, 116, S M Asmussen
5. Poseidon's Warrior (MD), J. Flores, 114, R E Reid, Jr.
6. Sloane Ranger (PA), J. Lezcano, 115, M E Ciresa
7. Jersey Town (KY), E.S. Prado, 116, B Tagg
8. Hamazing Destiny (KY), J. Rosario, 116, D W Lukas