By Ed Gray Photo Credit: Coglianese Photos
HALLANDALE BEACH, FL – Trainer Graham Motion stood in the Gulfstream Park winner’s circle after the fifth race Saturday, trying to collect his thoughts through a rush of emotions triggered by Animal Kingdom’s triumphant return to action.
A convincing victory in a $60,000 optional claiming allowance can hardly compare to his dominating triumph in the $2 million Kentucky Derby (G1) last year, but in many ways the stakes were just as high for Animal Kingdom, his trainer and his owner, Barry Irwin’s Team Valor International.
“It’s a question of exhaling. This horse has come a long way since October. Nothing was more heartbreaking than to see this horse stuck in a stall a week after the Belmont. He went from being the fittest horse in the country to not being able to get out of his stall. That was tough,” said Motion, whose Derby winner hadn’t run in a race in the nine months since undergoing surgery to repair a fracture in his left hind leg in June. “To see him today, back to himself, obviously I’m elated.”
Animal Kingdom, who returned to training in October, received an enthusiastic welcome from the fans as he entered the walking ring before the race and drew a rousing reception upon his return to the winner’s circle.
“I think when you have a Derby winner everybody owns a little piece of him. It may sound a little corny, but when you have a Derby winner, he’s a little bit the people’s horse and you have a responsibility,” Motion said. “I think the reception he got was neat, and I’m glad we got to run him here.”
Animal Kingdom bucked the recent trend of Kentucky Derby winners who have gone winless during their 4-year-old seasons, scoring by two lengths under jockey John Velazquez in the 1 1/16-mile turf race. In becoming the first Kentucky Derby champion to win as a 4-year-old since Giacomo came back to capture the 2006 San Diego Handicap, Animal Kingdom stayed on course for a scheduled start in the $10 million Dubai World Cup on March 31.
“All we were worried about was having him run too big. We didn’t want to see a big race and have him leave it on the track. We did not need a big race here. All we wanted was a nice quiet race and we got it,” said Irwin, the founder and CEO of Team Valor International. “He’s much better than he was last year. This race is not going to prove that, but we can tell by the way he trains and the way he looks, he’s a much better horse this year.”
Animal Kingdom launched his 2011 campaign at Gulfstream Park last March with a troubled second-place finish by a head behind Powhatan County, who coincidentally captured Saturday’s seventh race at Gulfstream.
The son of Leroidesanimaux had less trouble kicking off his 2012 season on a winning note. Away from the gate a bit slowly, the 3-5 favorite closely trailed his five rivals into the first turn before advancing on the leaders to the outside on the backstretch.
“They went slow enough where he just pulled me into contention all on his own,” said Velazquez, who notched his first-ever Kentucky Derby victory aboard Animal Kingdom. “I let him do what he wanted as opposed to wrangling him back behind horses.”
Animal Kingdom made a sweeping three-wide move on the turn into the homestretch to take the lead as the field straightened out for the stretch drive, quickly challenged by 2-1 second choice Monument Hill and jockey Javier Castellano. The challenge was short-lived, though, after Velazquez asked the massive chestnut colt for his run. Animal Kingdom sprinted clear to the finish line, completing 1 1/16 miles in 1:41.72.
“The second I started kissing at him in the stretch, he picked it right up and took off,” Velazquez said. “It was a great feeling today and great to have him back. He felt as good as ever.”
Monument Hill finished second, two lengths ahead of Bell by the Ridge and jockey Kent Desormeaux.
The victory for Animal Kingdom was his first since winning the Kentucky Derby, which he followed up with a second-place finish in the Preakness (G1) and a troubled sixth in the Belmont (G1).
“Obviously, I would have been disappointed if he hadn’t won today, when you’ve have a race that’s set up for you. But this was the best thing for us. He still had to go out there and it,” Motion said. “He needed a race and still has six weeks to regroup to get him to Dubai in the right way.”
Although Motion admitted to being anxious prior to Animal Kingdom’s 2012 return, the 47-year-old native of Cambridge, England never lost confidence in his first Derby winner.
“He’s a very special horse,” he said, “and I really wanted him to come back and prove it.”
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