HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. — 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.
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 11⁄16-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.
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."
Long shot rules at Turfway
Plutonium went in to the $50,000 Dust Commander Stakes a 30-1 long shot and came out a gate-to-wire, 81/4-length winner, earning his first stakes trophy in his 25th lifetime start Saturday at Turfway Park.
El Gran Sol, himself a 49-1 shot, was second, 21/2 lengths better than the 9-5 favorite, Proceed Bee, in third. Final time for the one-mile race over Polytrack was 1:37.51.
With Luis Martinez Jr. in the irons, Plutonium broke from post nine in the field of 11 older horses and immediately took the lead. Among his 25 starts are seven wins, three seconds and two thirds.