Team Valor owner Barry Irwin spent two decades as a racing journalist in the 1960s and '70s. So when a lot of the buzz surrounding his horse, Animal Kingdom, focused on the fact his only two victories came on tracks with synthetic surfaces, Irwin said he knew to tune it out.
And after Animal Kingdom was victorious on the Churchill Downs dirt, Irwin went back into journalistic mode and was critical of the current writers who made the surface such an issue.
"Here's one of my pet peeves on turf writers, and I can say this because I used to be a turf writer," he said. "If a turf writer paid attention to a horse like this and just looked at the horse as an individual and what he has done, they would have figured out that he was a buyable horse. This getting hung up on no turf horses have ever done this, no synthetic horses have ever done this, that kind of stuff to me is nonsense. The only thing that counts is what has this horse done and how has he trained and what do the connections think of him?"
Irwin worked with the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse before getting involved in racing in the late '70s. He operated Pacifica Thoroughbreds until he and fellow racing journalist Jeff Siegel formed Clover Stable in 1987. One of their horses, Prized, won the 1989 Breeders' Cup Turf. Irwin and Siegel broke away from their partners and formed Team Valor in 1992. Irwin bought out Siegel in 2007 and took sole control of ownership.
Perhaps Irwin's biggest heartbreak came in 1997, when Captain Bodgit, who won the Florida Derby and the Wood Memorial, finished second in the Derby to Silver Charm.
Saturday's Derby victory helped to ease the sting of that defeat.
"In 1997, when we ran Captain Bodgit, he was favored," Irwin said. "I had utter confidence in the horse. I really did not think he would lose. And it was a tough race for me. But I was hoping I would be back again and be able to win it, and it happened."
Animal Kingdom is by Leroidesanimaux, a Brazilian sire that stands now at Stonewall Farm's Ocala, Fla., operation for $7,500. As a yearling, the horse went through the 2009 Keeneland September Yearling Sale and sold for $100,000 to dissolve a separate Team Valor partnership with the stallion's owners, Audrey and Richard Haisfield, who faced legal and financial problems.
Animal Kingdom's mother, Dalicia, raced five years in Germany, France and North America. Irwin has often sought out international breed lines in his operation.
"I've always liked international racing, even when I was a turf writer," he said. "I'm the kind of guy that gets bored easily. I need a lot of different things to do. Following international racing is a lot of fun, and I also think that we have not done enough importing of horses and blood lines from other places where horses don't run on drugs and horses' legs are not manipulated. Horses basically are bigger, tougher, stronger and sounder."
Animal Kingdom was born and raised at Denali Stud near Paris, where Irwin has his broodmares, and Denali's owners, Craig and Holly Bandoroff, are part-owners of Animal Kingdom.
Irwin said Team Valor is thriving even in a struggling economy. "I've been through enough economic downturns before, so I know what needs to be done," he said. "And we took some steps in the last year and six months that I know we have made more money than any other partnership. But we might have made more money than most American stables in the horse business by selling horses around the world."