NEW YORK --- Talk about a tough crowd.
Dissed by the owner of Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom one day, dismissed as the third betting choice for the Belmont Stakes another, Preakness winner Shackleford is still considered an underdog for Saturday's final leg of the Triple Crown.
What's trainer Dale Romans to think about his long, lanky 3-year-old colt?
"He's not getting the respect he deserves," Romans said Thursday at Belmont Park, where racing was canceled for the day because of temperatures approaching 100 degrees. "Let's see what happens after the race."
Shackleford has been getting the cold shoulder for months, having been sent off at odds of 68-1, 23-1 and 12-1 in his past three races.
"Every race he's run in he's been a long shot and he's run well in every one of them," Romans said of Shackleford's starts since a fifth-place finish in the Fountain of Youth on Feb. 26. "And he's improved with every race. There are very few horses that have moved forward the more work they did. A lot stay the same, but he keeps getting better."
After Wednesday's post position draw, when Shackleford landed the outside No. 12 gate, more doubters emerged.
"I would not have wanted to be in 1 or 12," Animal Kingdom's trainer Graham Motion said. "The 12 is right by the grandstand. I'm happy he is in the 12. It will make him work a little bit."
To that, Romans replied: "He'll be the last one in and the first one out. He's fast enough that he'll be able to break and clear everyone anyway."
At 11/2 miles, the Belmont is the longest and most grueling test a 3-year-old will face. It's a distance horses have yet to run, and are unlikely to do so again. Pedigree reveals which horses are bred for distance, and that's likely why Animal Kingdom's owner Barry Irwin is ignoring Shackleford -- the son of a sire known for producing sprinters.
"I can't see a horse by Forestry going a mile-and-a-half," Irwin said after volunteering that he wasn't worried about Shackleford.
That's OK with Romans. He's figuring Shackleford will set a moderate pace and then try to hold off his 11 rivals. The plan nearly worked in the Derby, and worked to perfection in the Preakness.
On Saturday, the pressure will be on Shackleford's jockey Jesus Castanon to strike the right balance.
"We may have gone too slow in the Derby because it allowed everyone to come home so fast and then we couldn't hang on," Romans said. "The Preakness was totally different. We went fast and then they struggled a little bit at the end and we still had stamina left to finish."