Connections expected a Derby win, but maybe not with Animal Kingdom

Derby champ defies conventional wisdom with a historic run

awincze@herald-leader.comMay 8, 2011 

To many outside his inner circle, Animal Kingdom wasn't the horse who was supposed to take his connections into the stratosphere they reached during the 137th running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday.

If trainer Graham Motion was going to snag his first career Derby triumph, many figured Wood Memorial winner Toby's Corner was the horse to do it.

If Team Valor chief executive Barry Irwin and his partners were going to take a blanket of roses home, it wasn't supposed to be with a synthetic and turf specialist who had never run on dirt.

And if jockey John Velazquez was ever going to add a win in the first leg of the Triple Crown to a résumé that features practically every other major accolade in the sport, champion Uncle Mo was supposed to be the colt to do the honors.

In a season for 3-year-olds that has already been unpredictable, Animal Kingdom was the perfect specimen to make all the above come to fruition.

"Someone said 'Are you surprised to win with a second-string horse?' " Motion said of Animal Kingdom. "I'm not sure we would categorize him as a second-string horse."

The record crowd of 164,858 at Churchill Downs witnessed history as 20-1 shot Animal Kingdom collared pace setter Shackleford in the final sixteenth of a mile to win the $2 million Kentucky Derby by 23/4 lengths over Nehro.

The tears that poured out from behind Irwin's trademark glasses in the aftermath gave away only part of the emotional journey his connections had been on in recent days.

On Tuesday, Motion announced his trainee Toby's Corner — the horse who handed Uncle Mo his first career defeat in the Grade I Wood Memorial on April 9 — was out of the Kentucky Derby because of lameness in his left hind leg.

Hall of Fame nominee Velazquez had his own angst to deal with Friday morning when Uncle Mo, the 2-year-old champion he had ridden in all five of the colt's starts, was scratched from the race because of a stomach ailment — the third consecutive season Velazquez had lost his ride on the expected Derby favorite because of injury.

In a wild twist of fate, Irwin made the call later Friday morning to give Velazquez the mount on Animal Kingdom after his scheduled jockey Robby Albarado had suffered a broken nose in a paddock accident Wednesday.

It was a gamble that resulted in the most euphoric of moments.

"I've only won a couple of really big ones and, when it happens, it's just surreal is all I can tell you," Irwin said. "You see it, you know what happened, but it's hard to process. That's my immediate thought."

Added Velazquez, "A lot of things happen for a reason. I guess it was meant to be no matter what."

What Animal Kingdom did was buck a bunch of trends that made him somewhat overlooked even in a wide-open Derby field.

The chestnut son of Leroidesanimaux became the first horse since Exterminator in 1918 to win the Derby with just four prior starts, the first to win off a six-week layoff since Needles in 1956, and the first sophomore to take the 11/4-mile test having never previously started over a dirt surface.

Animal Kingdom broke his maiden second time out going 11⁄8 miles over the Polytrack at Keeneland, and he followed that up with a runner-up finish on the turf during his seasonal debut at Gulfstream Park in March.

In his first try against stakes company, Animal Kingdom rallied from off the pace to win the Grade III Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park on March 26.

Instead of trying to squeeze one more prep race out of his protégé, the ever-patient Motion figured he would give the colt more time to develop for the biggest test of his life.

"Once he won the Spiral, Barry and I talked and said if we're going to go to the Derby with what I felt was a very light horse, I just couldn't see putting him through another race," said Motion, who had saddled two other Derby starters in Chilito (11th in 1998) and Adriano (19th in 2008). "We took the conservative route, and that's how it worked out.

"He's just a very special horse, and I'm so impressed with how he handled everything today."

A key for any horse in the Kentucky Derby is avoiding trouble, something Velazquez and Animal Kingdom did to perfection.

As expected, the front-running Shackleford and fellow speedster Comma to the Top were the leaders coming out of the first turn, with the former opening up a 11/2-length advantage as he hit the opening half in :48.63.

Animal Kingdom settled into 12th on an outside path after breaking from post No. 16 with 5-1 favorite Dialed In last in the 19-horse field.

"The whole thing we wanted to do was get some sort of position and stay out of trouble," said Velazquez, who had been 0-for-12 in the Derby. "He was going well the whole way around, and when I asked him to run, he was there for me."

That winning run began with about 3 furlongs to go as Animal Kingdom kicked in between horses with a four-wide move that left him with a clear path down the middle of the track for the final furlong.

Shackleford, the runner-up in the Florida Derby, dug in and held on to his lead at the top of the lane as Arkansas Derby runner-up Nehro came with a bid on the outside.

Though Nehro would eventually wear down Shackle ford — who still held gamely for fourth — neither were a match for Animal Kingdom and his long strides that covered the distance in 2:02.04. Mucho Macho Man got up for third.

"He ran a great race, the winner was just a bit better," said Nehro's jockey Corey Nakatani. "We were in a predicament where I didn't think the pace was as fast as what I needed, but ... for him to run this big in this race is impressive."

Unfortunately for trainer Nick Zito, his Florida Derby winner and race favorite Dialed In had the least impressive run of his five-race career, coming home eighth.

"He was dead last, and they (the pacesetters) never came back," Zito said.

Should Animal Kingdom return in two weeks for the Preakness Stakes, his connections will have to answer questions about whether they now have a horse capable of making a run at the Triple Crown.

After the week they endured leading up to the Kentucky Derby, they couldn't think of a better problem to have.

"People get so hung up on 'no turf horses have ever done this, no synthetic horses have ever done this,' that kind of stuff," Irwin said. "All that is nonsense to me. The only thing that counts is what has this horse done."

■ Arkansas Derby winner Archarcharch was vanned off after finishing 15th and was diagnosed with a lateral condylar fracture of his left front leg. Dr. Larry Bramlage of the American Association of Equine Practitioners On Call team said the injury will require surgery, but it was not life-threatening.

■ Last-place finisher Comma to the Top suffered an injured left ankle.

Trainer Peter Miller said the horse has a chip fracture.

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