There have been moments in the mornings when Animal Kingdom almost succeeds in making those around him forget he hasn't been in a race since last June.
The powerful chestnut that won the 2011 Kentucky Derby continues to impress trainer Graham Motion with the way he moves. Though an injury following his tumultuous Belmont Stakes outing ended Animal Kingdom's sophomore campaign, his demeanor during his A.M. training sessions have his connections thinking he's lost none of the intangibles that helped make him last year's champion 3-year-old male.
"He's always been a spectacular work horse and he continues to be," Motion said this week. "He hasn't given me any indication that he's not back to himself but you know, there is nothing like getting a race into him mentally and physically to kind of get him back on track."
The first litmus test in Animal Kingdom's journey back to his old form comes Saturday when the son of Leroidesanimaux makes his 2012 debut against five others in a 11⁄16-mile turf allowance race at Gulfstream Park.
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Even though Team Valor's homebred colt won the divisional hardware at the 2011 Eclipse Awards, it is safe to say the theme for his 4-year-old season is validation.
Last year's 3-year-old crop was widely panned for its overall lack of success as only two horses — Caleb's Posse and The Factor — earned two Grade I wins in 2011. For his part, Animal Kingdom never got to follow up on his burgeoning talent as he emerged from his sixth-place run in the Belmont with a fracture in his left hock.
While Motion does not necessarily need to see the colt win this weekend in order to move forward with plans to point him toward the $10 million Dubai World Cup on March 31, he does want to see signs Animal Kingdom still has the brilliance that allowed him to win the Derby in his first try over a dirt surface.
"He doesn't have to win the race, I would never want to say that, but he's got to be very competitive," Motion said of the colt's seasonal debut. "He's got to show me he's back to himself. He did get beaten last year in his first race back ... so it's not out of the realm of possibility he could be beaten. But I would surely hope to see his old sparkle — which he's given me every indication to believe he will from his morning workouts."
The Gulfstream turf served as the launching pad for Animal Kingdom's championship campaign last year as he ran second in a 1-mile allowance test there last March prior to winning the Grade III Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes 23 days later.
Motion originally planned to bring Animal Kingdom back in the Grade III Tampa Bay Stakes on Feb. 25. By running him this Saturday, however, he has more flexibility in his World Cup preparations.
"I think it gives me ample time for him to recover from the race," he said.
Animal Kingdom's return is the highlight of a weekend that also features the 2012 debut of Grade I winner and leading West Coast Kentucky Derby candidate Creative Cause in Sunday's Grade II San Vicente Stakes at 7 furlongs at Santa Anita Park.
Freshened since finishing third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile on Nov. 5, Creative Cause is using the San Vicente as a steppingstone to the Grade I, $750,000 Santa Anita Derby on April 7.
"I think he's on his game," trainer Mike Harrington said.
Monday will feature other Derby hopefuls in action as the Southwest Stakes is contested at Oaklawn Park. Breeders' Cup Juvenile Sprint winner Secret Circle is among a large group of horses pointing toward the one-mile test and a final decision will be made Saturday as to whether the race will be split into two divisions, each carrying the $250,000 purse and Grade III status.