NEW YORK -- The anticipation of a Triple Crown try was building as Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom was closing in on Shackleford in the final yards of the Preakness Stakes.
The colt's gallant bid, however, came up short -- by a mere half length. So instead of being energized by another attempt to end a 32-year Triple Crown drought, the racing world is looking at something less compelling but intriguing nonetheless in next Saturday's 143rd Belmont Stakes: Derby winner vs. Preakness winner.
"Obviously, it's a whole different ballgame when there's a Triple Crown on the line, but we have no control over that," says Dan Silver, the New York Racing Association's communications director. "There's still plenty to get excited about with an anticipated rubber match. That doesn't happen very often, and this year's could be even better than most because of how closely matched Animal Kingdom and Shackleford appear."
In fact, NYRA oddsmaker Eric Donovan is still toying with the morning-line, although Animal Kingdom seems the likely favorite when the post positions and odds are announced Wednesday.
"My guess now is Animal Kingdom, with Shackleford a close second choice, followed by Nehro a few ticks higher," maybe 2-1, 5-2 and 4- or 5-1 on those three, respectively," says Donovan. "I'd imagine a lot of people think that since Animal Kingdom won the 1 1/4-mile Derby and came up a bit short in the 1 3/16-mile Preakness, that the 1 1/2-mile Belmont would suit him better than Shackleford."
Of course, there's always a little history to be made when the Belmont rolls around. This time, Animal Kingdom will try to become the 12th Derby-Belmont winner, the last being Thunder Gulch in 1995; and Shackleford will try to become the 19th Preakness-Belmont winner, last accomplished in 2005 by Afleet Alex, who defeated Derby winner Giacomo in the last matchup of Derby and Preakness winners.
The final leg of the Triple Crown is shaping up to be much more than a two-horse race. The field could be as large as 14 -- which would equal the second-largest in Belmont history -- and make this Triple Crown season one of the mostly hotly contested. The Derby had a full field of 20; the Preakness a full field of 14.
"I don't know if it's this group of 3-year-olds, or if everyone is trying to take on the top two horses," says trainer Tom Albertrani, who has Derby seventh-place finisher Brilliant Speed for the Belmont. "It just shows there's a lot of interest in the Belmont; a lot more competition, and that's what we want."
There could be eight Derby starters in the field, including the first seven finishers, which would be another first for the Belmont.
"First of all, I'm very disappointed this is the year everyone's decided to come back," Animal Kingdom's trainer Graham Motion joked. "But it's the test of champions. It's what makes it so great. It's what makes the Triple Crown so great."
Besides Animal Kingdom, the other Derby runners are expected to be Nehro (second), Mucho Macho Man (third), Shackleford (fourth), Master of Hounds (fifth), Santiva (sixth), Brilliant Speed (seventh) and Stay Thirsty (12th). Other probables include Harlan's Hello, Isn't He Perfect, Monzon, Prime Cut and Ruler on Ice.
"I hope and pray seven of the Derby winners will be running," Nehro owner Ahmed Zayat said of his colt, who skipped the Preakness after finishing second in the Louisiana, Florida and Kentucky derbys. "That would be a beautiful rematch of everybody and a true test of all the horses, and I can't wait to run my colt there."
Animal Kingdom, who never ran on dirt before the Derby, has made a smooth transition, winning at Churchill Downs by 2 3/4 lengths before experiencing dirt kicked back in his face for the first time early in the Preakness.
Since the Preakness, Motion has had his colt back at Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, Md. But unlike vanning Animal Kingdom to Pimlico the morning of the race, the horse was scheduled be taken to Belmont Park over the weekend. He's set for a final workout Monday over the 1 1/2-mile oval -- the longest and widest dirt racetrack in North America.
"Belmont is such a unique track, so we all agree it makes sense to be there several days," says Motion, referring to Team Valor general partner Barry Irwin and jockey John Velazquez. "And with the fact he needs to have work I felt it made more sense to have it over the track he's going to run on."
While some of racing's big-name trainers may not have a horse in the Belmont -- Hall of Fame trainers Bob Baffert and Nick Zito to name a few -- a nice, friendly rivalry seems to be developing between Motion and Dale Romans, who trains Shackleford. Both trainers won their first Triple Crown races at the others' "home" track.
"I think it would be great if we could develop a little bit of a rivalry in the 3-year-old division," says Romans. "I think these 3-year-olds are better than most people realize."