NEW YORK (Reuters) - The absence of a Triple Crown contender has provided an unexpected extra edge to Saturday's $1 million Belmont Stakes, triggering a rare outbreak of trash-talking in the normally conservative world of thoroughbred racing.
While neither Animal Kingdom, who won the Kentucky Derby, or Shackleford, the winner of the Preakness Stakes, can win the coveted Triple Crown after splitting the first two legs, connections of both horses are in dispute over who has the best three-year-old in the United States.
Saturday's race is the third clash between the rivals in five weeks but has all the makings of a grudge match that could decide bragging rights for the rest of the season.
Barry Irwin, the breeder and owner of Animal Kingdom, dismissed Shackleford as a threat even though the colt ended his own horse's chances of landing the Triple Crown when he held him off to win the Preakness.
"I'm not worried about Shackleford, by the way," Irwin told a news conference.
"I'm worried about Mucho Macho Man. I think he's the horse to beat."
Dale Romans, the trainer of Shackleford, hit back: "That's not the dumbest thing I've ever heard Barry say, but it's one of them."
Bookmakers have made Animal Kingdom the 2-1 favorite for the grueling one-and-a-half-mile journey with Shackleford listed at odds of 9-2, although it is looming as anything but a two-horse race.
The race has attracted a dozen runners, including the first seven finishers in the Kentucky Derby.
Several, including the runner-up Nehro and the Irish-bred Master of Hounds, skipped the Preakness to save themselves for the final leg, the longest and most exhausting of the three classics on dirt.
"We've got three seconds in the last three derbies, being Louisiana, Arkansas and Kentucky, and we hope to shed the bridesmaid's tag and get the win," said Brad Weisbord, the racing manager for Zayat Stables that own Nehro, rated a 4-1 chance.
The sentimental favorite could well be Mucho Macho Man, whose trainer Kathy Ritvo survived a heart transplant.
Mucho Macho Man finished third at Kentucky and sixth at the Preakness after throwing a front shoe coming out of the gate.
"We're using some glue-ons this time," she said. "I'm pretty sure they'll stick."
The Belmont is the oldest of the three Triple Crown races and Saturday's running will be the 142nd edition of a race that has been the crowning glory of the 11 horses that have managed to win all three.
The last was Affirmed in 1978 but the most enduring remains Secretariat, who completed the Triple Crown in 1973 by winning the Belmont by 31 lengths.
"The Belmont is a grueling test, and you have to have a great horse to do it," Romans said.
"Without a Triple Crown on the line, this is going to be one of the most exciting Belmonts I can remember."
Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes