'Kingdom’ Comes to Gulfstream
Animal Kingdom achieved immortality on Saturday, May 7, 2011 – forever to be remembered as a Kentucky Derby (G1) champion.
Team Valor International’s classic winner, though, has some unfinished business before he’s scheduled to begin stallion duty later this year, and the 5-year-old Kentucky-bred horse will be given the opportunity to add to his legend within the next few months, starting at Gulfstream Park on Saturday, Feb. 9.
The $300,000 Kitten’s Joy Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap (G1) is expected to be Animal Kingdom’s last start in the U.S. on a schedule that includes the $10 million Dubai World Cup (G1) on March 30 and a tentative trip to Royal Ascot in England for a final career start in June.
“You just hope you get to each one. The trip to Ascot, if we could do that, would be the icing on the cake. To do that would mean he ran very well in Dubai. Otherwise, we wouldn’t do that,” trainer Graham Motion said. “To win the Derby and take the horse to Royal Ascot, how much better does it get than that?”
Unfortunately, Animal Kingdom’s racing schedule has been interrupted by two layoffs of eight months-plus since the 2011 Triple Crown campaign due to injury, resulting in just two starts since his only off-the-board finish in the Belmont Stakes on June 11, 2011.
“It’s a selfish thing, but it is frustrating. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it now: He’s probably the best horse I’ll ever train. It’s going to be hard to have a horse that I can say is better than him, so not being able to run for a certain amount of time has been frustrating,” Motion said. “I would have loved to have seen him be able to go out there and prove over and over again how great he is. But because he’s been somewhat fragile, it’s been kind of one race at a time.”
Yet, when he has been able to compete in his two races, the son of Leroidesanimaux has run impressively. After recovering from an injury to his left hind leg that was detected after the Belmont, Animal Kingdom prepped for a scheduled start in last year’s Dubai World Cup with a dominating two-length triumph in a turf allowance race at Gulfstream last February. A subsequent injury to his left hind leg, unrelated to the first injury, put Animal Kingdom back on the shelf, but he came back as good, or better, than ever on Nov. 3.
Motion and Team Valor International made a bold move by bringing Animal Kingdom back from the long layoff in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Mile at Santa Anita. Although it was not a triumphant return and was marred by two separate traffic issues for the Derby winner, Animal Kingdom’s second-place finish behind Wise Dan, who subsequently was named 2012 Horse of the Year, was remarkable and a credit to Motion’s well-respected horsemanship.
“The main thing is we never had a hiccup after getting started, and he couldn’t have afforded a hiccup...except for when it comes down to those two minutes,” said Motion said. “It’s only a sign of how good he is.”
With big assists from his trainer and the adventurous Barry Irwin, the founder and CEO of Team Valor International, Animal Kingdom has often defied convention, most notably when he became the first horse ever to win the Kentucky Derby in his very first start on dirt.
After racing twice over the synthetic surfaces at Arlington Park and Keeneland when trained by Wayne Catalano in 2010, Animal Kingdom made the first start of his 3-year-old season and for Motion on March 3, 2011, finishing second in a turf allowance race at Gulfstream Park. He made giant strides on the Road to the Kentucky Derby by subsequently capturing the Spiral Stakes (G3) by nearly three lengths over Turfway Park’s synthetic surface.
Animal Kingdom made enough money to qualify for the 20-horse Derby field, but he had to pass the dirt test in a workout before being confirmed for what turned out to be a history-making performance.
“Had he not worked well, there’s a good chance we wouldn’t have run him. Barry and I talked about it a lot and it really came down to that work,” said Motion, whose Derby prospect worked six furlongs over Churchill’s main track in 1:13. “I remember someone saying that (Hall of Fame trainer Bob) Baffert said, ‘That’s the horse to beat,’ after he watched the work. When somebody like that says something, it kind of catches your attention.”
Animal Kingdom would catch the attention of the world with a thoroughly dominating victory by 2 ¾ lengths in the Kentucky Derby, giving his trainer, Team Valor International and jockey John Velazquez their first successes in the first leg of the Triple Crown.
“I think the thing I remember most was at the three-eighths pole. Whenever I’d run horses before, they always started to struggle at the three-eighths pole. I thought, ‘This horse is just starting to run.’ I think the three-eighths pole is what separates the men from the boys a little bit. You find out who’s going to be there,” Motion recalled. “Turning into the stretch, I remember, he was full of run and Johnny had him in the clear. At the eighth-pole, all I could think was how cruel it would be if someone came and beat him. When you finally think you’ve got a chance to win the race, the cruelest blow would be to watch him get beat in the last few strides. I’ve seen it happen so many times to people.”
Finding the Winner’s Circle
Animal Kingdom and Velazquez found the Churchill Downs winner’s circle a little easier than Motion.
“I had no idea how to get to the winner’s circle. I followed Dale Romans, who led me down to the winner’s circle,” said Motion, whose guide had become well acquainted with the Churchill winner’s circle while capturing 10 training titles. “I literally hung onto the back of his jacket and followed him down.”
Although winning the Derby is a goal for most trainers, Motion didn’t grow up in Cambridge, England with a dream to one day saddle a Kentucky Derby winner.
“It wasn’t something necessarily on my bucket list. That’s not to belittle it. I mean, I wasn’t brought up in racing in this country. No disrespect to the Derby,” said Motion, who moved to the U.S. when he was 16. “It was almost an unrealistic goal. I never set that as a race to win. Everybody wants to win it, but it had never been a thing when I started training that I had to win the Derby. It’s very surreal to have won it. The further we get away from it, it’s almost hard to believe. It’s an extraordinary club to be in. It’s one of the most elite club’s in racing. To be in a club with Baffert, (D. Wayne) Lukas and guys you had huge respect for when you’re just starting in the game. You don’t expect to be competing with them at that level.”
Animal Kingdom’s triumph in America’s most important race was of particular excitement and satisfaction for Irwin, who arranged the mating that produced the Derby winner.
“Every time we won a race with a homebred, people would say, ‘Is it special?’ Like when we won with Pluck in the (2010) Breeders’ Cup (Juvenile Turf). At that point, there wasn’t that much of an extra kick. But for Animal Kingdom, since I’d bought the sire for a guy and imported his dam and planned the mating, it did add an extra special layer of satisfaction to it,” Irwin said. “To be that involved in that many parts of it and to see it come to fruition was definitely different for me.”
Animal Kingdom fell just a half-length short of keeping his Triple Crown sweep hopes alive in the Preakness two weeks later after breaking slowly and lagging far behind in the early going.
“He just got away a step slow and the race kind of got away from him the first part,” Motion said. “For him to win that race would have been extraordinary – what he would have had to overcome.”
Animal Kingdom found far too much trouble to overcome in the Belmont, when he was bumped shortly after the start and stumbled badly, causing Velazquez to lose his irons. His first injury was detected shortly after his sixth-place finish.
Animal Kingdom is scheduled to stand at stud in September at Australia’s Arrowfield Stud, which recently purchased a majority interest in his breeding rights. Irwin had planned on campaigning his Derby winner for the entire 2013 season, but Animal Kingdom will only have two, maybe three races to cap his racing career.
“We’ve sold 75 percent of him. We kept 25. It was not easy for us to do it because, to us, the horse still hasn’t shown what he can do. The whole package hasn’t been opened. When he was a 3-year-old, even though he won the Derby, he did so with power. He didn’t do so with speed or turn of foot. Last year, when he made that start in the Breeders’ Cup, he showed a turn of foot we had never seen before,” Irwin said. “We think he could be a monster, so it was difficult to sell him, knowing the package hasn’t been fully opened yet. On one hand, it’s bittersweet because we took some money off the table to ensure he’d have his best chance at stud. But on the other hand we think there’s still a lot more there and I hope we get to see it before he’s retired.”
Animal Kingdom might need to be a monster to prevail in the Kitten's Joy Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap, which is expected to attract Point of Entry, whose three-race winning streak in Grade 1 stakes was ended by just a half-length after a troubled trip in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1), and Unbridled Command, the winner of the Hollywood Derby (G1) who will seek his sixth-straight victory.
“The big picture is getting him to Dubai. This race is an important steppingstone. Believe me, he’s going to be ready to run, and it’s not going to be easy,” Motion said. “But the big picture is getting him to Dubai. It’s always been our goal to get there.”
No matter what happens in the Kitten's Joy Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap and beyond, Animal Kingdom will still be remembered as a Kentucky Derby champion.