The importance of the Kentucky Derby can not be overstated in the Thoroughbred industry as it carries more prestige and name recognition than any other contest in the sport.
The reverence the first leg of the Triple Crown engenders was evident again during the 41st annual Eclipse Awards ceremony as it ultimately decided who topped the most contentious division of the 2011 season.
The weight of his victory on the first Saturday in May was enough to push Team Valor's Animal Kingdom into historic territory as the homebred chestnut colt defeated fellow Grade I winner Caleb's Posse by three votes to earn the Eclipse Award for champion 3-year-old male Monday.
Of the 248 first-place votes cast, Animal Kingdom earned 114 of them to 111 for Caleb's Posse. The last time the winning margin for an equine divisional honor was that tight came when Leroidesanimaux — who is the sire of Animal Kingdom — defeated Artie Schiller by three votes to be named 2005 champion turf male.
Never miss a local story.
When Animal Kingdom stunned the racing world with his 23/4-length Derby win at odds of 20-to-1 in just his fifth career start, debate quickly ensued as to whether he was a fluke or an upstart star just finding his stride.
The Graham Motion trainee never got a chance to definitively answer that question last year. After finishing second to Shackleford in the Preakness Stakes, Animal Kingdom endured a rocky outing in the Belmont Stakes where he was bumped hard leaving the gate, nearly unseating jockey John Velazquez. He subsequently finished sixth.
Shortly after that, Animal Kingdom was found to have a fracture in his left hind leg that would end his 2011 campaign. Though his only other stakes win came when he captured the Grade III Vinery Spiral Stakes at Turfway in March, none of his classmates could string together enough victories to cement themselves as the divisional leader.
Caleb's Posse and The Factor were the only sophomore males to win two Grade I races in 2011, but both horses were considered sprint specialists. Still, Caleb's Posse made a strong case for himself, winning the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile by four lengths over Shackleford and defeating champion Uncle Mo in the Grade I, seven-furlong King's Bishop.
Caleb's Posse won four graded stakes in 2011, including the Grade III Ohio Derby going 11⁄16 miles.
Animal Kingdom, who has resumed serious training and is being pointed toward a possible start in the Dubai World Cup, is the first horse since Prairie Bayou in 1993 to be named champion 3-year-old male with only one Grade I win during the calendar year. Prairie Bayou won the Preakness Stakes but suffered a fatal breakdown in the Belmont.