Shack’s Track

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The golf cart pulled up to Terry Oliver by the quarter-pole gap on the main track Wednesday and a simple question came from the driver. “Where’s the big guy?”

Oliver, leaning on a sawhorse and holding a shank, nodded his head toward the track and said, “He’s out there. Backing up and then galloping. He’ll be around in a minute.”

The look said it all.

“Oh, you mean Dale? He’s over on the frontside. We had some workers, and he went to where he could see them. I think. Maybe he’s over there on the turn where he always is, too.”

Oliver, Saratoga assistant to trainer Dale Romans, just assumed the question concerned Preakness winner Shackleford – the other big guy in Romans’ barn. The long-legged chestnut trains on the main track at 9:30 most mornings, taking the short walk from the barn by the half-mile pole to the track. Jockey Jesus Castanon is in the saddle, Oliver on the shank.

The most accomplished 3-year-old on the grounds, Shackleford catches attention thanks to the gleaming coat, the recognizable face and the reputation. People ask Oliver about “the big guy” all the time. They stop and watch him walk down the horsepath. They get out of his way when he hits the track. They pull over and watch him gallop past. They snap photos. They call him Shack.

Wednesday was no exception. Oliver led a quiet Shackleford to the gap, unsnapped the shank and quickly backed up. The son of Forestry bounced a few steps, scattered another horse standing in and extended into a jog.

“When he first jogs off he likes to play a little bit so I get out of his way,” said Oliver. “He’s a lot of horse, he’s not mean by any means. He’s a little playful, but at 16.2 (hands) you’ve got to give him some respect.”

As one of the few 3-year-old stars still going this year, he’s earned it. Shackleford started his 2011 campaign in February at Gulfstream, when he a first-level allowance at 9 furlongs. From there, he placed fifth in the Fountain of Youth, second in the Florida Derby and fourth in the Kentucky Derby. The Mike Lauffer and Bill Cubbedge homebred denied Derby winner Animal Kingdom in the Preakness, holding on by a gutsy half-length. Shackleford settled for fifth in the Belmont, done in by the 1 1/2 miles, a sloppy track and winner Ruler On Ice.

Romans and Oliver figured out a seven-week break before his next race, a second behind Coil in the Haskell July 31. In that Grade I, Shackleford sat just off leader Joe Vann and made the lead in the stretch before getting run down by Coil. Despite losing, Oliver liked what he saw and likes the horse’s progress toward the Travers.

“For him to get better, he has to learn to relax some,” said Oliver. “That comes with age and maturity. He settled off the horse in the Haskell which was impressive to me. He ran fine. Just got beat. And it’s phenomenal how well  he’s come back. He’s handled the campaign.”

Wednesday, Castanon worked on the relaxation skills some more – jogging the wrong way for 1 1/2 miles and then galloping 2 miles. Shackleford did most of it on a loose rein, flicking his front legs out at the trot and galloping with purpose and propulsion without much more than light contact from Castanon. Like his rival Animal Kingdom’s spring gallops at Fair Hill, Shackleford improved the second time by after challenging Castanon a bit with a lead change the first time.

“He’s trying to make sure Dale is watching,” the jockey said from the horse’s back afterward.

“He likes to make things his idea so we try to make him think that some of the things we do are his idea as we go,” said Oliver, who ran a breaking/training/pinhooking business and trained in Florida for years before taking a full-time job with Romans this winter. “For the most part, it’s our job to just stay out of his way. It’s our job to keep him sound and happy; his job is to do the rest and he seems to be doing it well right now.”

Shackleford trains late in the morning because it’s calmer, quieter. There’s less traffic, less noise, less potential for danger or calamity. The Preakness winner’s schedule includes a walk at 5:30 a.m., the training session, a daily roll and another walk at 4:30 p.m. He might work Saturday, weather permitting, with the Travers coming in two weeks, and drags humans along for every stop.

“He’s very recognizable,” Oliver said. “He gets visitors all morning, loves it. He’s very personable, very fun horse to watch. He has fun with it. He looks for it.”

Like the big guy should.