Like many, my friends and I tuned in to the opening ceremonies for the Olympics. While the athletes were marching, we noted that we almost felt bad for some of them. Specifically the younger ones.
Why? Well, if a 19-year-old wins a gold medal, even if they live to be 90, the first sentence of their obituary will be about that gold medal. That is a lot of pressure. And where do you go from there?
Of course, that is the reality for any athlete that competes at the highest level. With few exceptions, moments like those are what you will be remembered for in the public eye.
To the world at large, horses that win a leg of the Triple Crown have a better chance of making the news than other champions this sport produces.
I had first hand experience with this fact during my time in the Hall of Champions at the Kentucky Horse Park. People would look at Cigar and ask me how he did in the Triple Crown. When I explained that he didn't compete in the series, most would ask why he was considered a champion.
So with that said, I know that Shackleford, who won the 2011 Preakness Stakes, will first and foremost be remembered for that victory. However, if he can win on Sunday, he will have pulled off something even more challenging.
The graded stakes system was introduced in 1973. In the 39 years since, only four horses are believed to have won Grade 1 races at six furlongs and also at distances longer than 1 1/8 miles. They are as follows: Ruffian, Foolish Pleasure, Precisionist and Dancing Spree.
Shackleford is slated to go to post in the Grade 1 Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap at Saratoga this weekend. If the chestnut colt can win the six-furlong contest, he will be joining that very elite company.
Of course, the ability to run short and long is not what any of those horses are remembered for. Their stories all contain highlights far less technical than that. But when you consider most runners (human and equine) specialize at certain distances, it is pretty impressive.
Regardless of the Vanderbilt's outcome, I have to admit I have a very big soft spot for the handsome horse with the big white face. Shackleford does not always win, but he always tries. It is a quality I can't help but love in runners, and I know I am not alone.
Beyond that, Shackleford finds himself in a unique spot when compared to the other Triple Crown race winners of the past three years. Eight different horses achieved glory in those nine races. Two of them never ran again (I'll Have Another and Union Rags) and two of them never won again (Super Saver and Ruler on Ice).
In short, not only is Shackleford still racing, he is still racing well and against top company.
Meanwhile, Animal Kingdom and Drosselmeyer had their 3-year-old seasons end after the Belmont due to injury. Animal Kingdom has run once since then, winning an allowance race earlier this year before getting hurt again. Drosselmeyer was mostly a forgotten horse his 4-year-old season, until he was the upset winner of last year's Breeders' Cup Classic. It is the only graded stakes race he won outside of the Belmont, and he was promptly retired.
Lastly, there is 2010 Preakness winner, Lookin at Lucky. He finished out that year in good style, was named champion 3-year-old colt, and took those laurels with him into the breeding shed.
So due to a combination of luck, talent and economics, of the eight horses who have garnered headlines during the Triple Crown since 2010, Shackleford is and will be the only one who continued racing successfully without significant time away from the track and as an older horse.
Through trial, error and perhaps pedigree, it became clear he does not relish the classic distance of 1 ¼ miles. Trainer Dale Romans and owners Bill Cubbedge, Michael Lauffer and Phillips Racing Partnership have adjusted for that.
Shackleford finished second behind Caleb's Posse in last year's Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile. This spring he came back to defeat that foe in the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap on May 28 at Belmont Park. His triumph earned a 115 Beyer Speed Figure, the top Beyer registered this year on a natural dirt surface.
Prior to his Met Mile victory, Shackleford defeated 2011 Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Amazombie in the Grade 2 Churchill Down Stakes on the Kentucky Derby undercard. Amazombie came back from that race to handily defeat a very nice horse in The Factor in the Grade 1 Bing Crosby Stakes July 29.
In short, not only is Shackleford still racing, he is still racing well and against top company. Toss in his good looks and gusty front-running style, and you have all the ingredients for a horse that is hard to hate.
Of course, horse racing is a business, and there is already a stud deal in place for Shackleford. He is set to retire to Darby Dan Farm at the end of the year.
Should Shackleford win the Vanderbilt, it isn't why he will be remembered. When he retires, when he sires his first foal, when he has his first winner, when he sires any champions, and at the very end, the world will remember him first and foremost as the 2011 Preakness Stakes winner.
But kudos to his owners and the racing gods for giving him the chance to be so much more.
Amanda Duckworth is a freelance journalist who lives in Lexington, Ky. Write to her at email@example.com.