The fact Animal Kingdom keeps reinforcing Graham Motion's proclamation of being the best horse he has ever conditioned has been, in a sense, as much a source of frustration as it is a relief for his affable trainer.
Every time the champion colt validates his exceptional talent, the angst over his limited opportunities becomes that much tougher to endure.
Though his physical frailties have limited him to just four starts since his win in the 2011 Kentucky Derby, Animal Kingdom has continued to command respect for his repeated comebacks against top level company. On Saturday, Team Valor's chestnut colt is to make the final stateside start of his star-crossed career when he faces multiple Grade I winner Point of Entry and four others in the Grade I Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap.
Team Valor announced in December that it sold a majority of Animal Kingdom's breeding rights to Australia-based Arrowfield Stud and that the son of Leroidesanimaux would begin his stud career this September. Barring another setback, the 5-year-old chestnut is scheduled to start in the Dubai World Cup on March 30 with a tentative trip to Royal Ascot in England slated for his final career outing in June.
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This time last year, Animal Kingdom was on his first comeback path after suffering a slab fracture in his hock following a sixth-place run in the 2011 Belmont Stakes. After impressively winning an allowance race on the turf at Gulfstream last February in what was supposed to be a prep for the 2012 Dubai World Cup, Animal Kingdom was sidelined again with a hind-end stress fracture.
Despite having not started in 259 days, Motion and Team Valor were so confident in Animal Kingdom's ability that they sent him into the Breeders' Cup Mile last November against a field that included eventual Horse of the Year Wise Dan and multiple Group I winner Excelebration.
His second-place finish to Wise Dan was viewed by many as one of the most impressive performances of the Breeders' Cup program. It also left Motion aching to have his charge get a chance at stringing together more than one race at a time.
"I think (the Breeders' Cup) surprised a lot of people and it's selfish to say but it is frustrating we didn't pull it off even," Motion said this week. "With a better trip who knows, maybe it would have been a little closer. It doesn't take anything away from the winner, he's an extraordinary horse but ... I guess my only frustration is that we didn't have a clean trip.
"But a horse like our horse when you're only running a few times, you sure hope they're going to have a good trip and no excuses. In racing it doesn't always work out that way. But the fact he's only got a few more races left before he goes to stud now, certainly that means you want each race to count."
The question a year ago was whether Animal Kingdom could get back to winning form off an injury. The expectation now is for him to handle a horse Saturday who in most other seasons would have been crowned a divisional champion off his 2012 campaign.
Beginning with an allowance win at Keeneland last April, the Shug McGaughey-trained Point of Entry reeled off five straight victories including three Grade I wins before getting beat by a half-length by Little Mike in the Breeders' Cup Turf.
While the 5-year-old son of Dynaformer is the most accomplished member of the six-horse field on grass, he is best going longer than the 11⁄8 miles he will travel Saturday.
"Obviously, 11⁄8 miles is not his opportune distance but it's a place to get started and I'm looking forward to it," McGaughey said. "But if he could be competitive with those horses going 11⁄8 miles, it could open up some other doors, too."
Point of Entry is also being considered for a possible trip to Dubai with a start in the $5 million Sheema Classic going 11/2 miles as the target.
"We hope he runs a good race here but this isn't a win or lose proposition," McGaughey said. "If we see a good effort and he comes back good, we'll take it from there."
Lost in the shuffle of the billed showdown between Animal Kingdom and Point of Entry is Grade I winner Unbridled Command. Trained by Tom Bush, who conditioned the ultra-popular Get Stormy, Unbridled Command brings a five-race win streak into Saturday and comes off a victory in the Grade I Hollywood Derby on Nov. 25.
As has been the case at every turn, there are no soft spots for Animal Kingdom to try to rebuild his momentum. Since it doesn't take much to get him back at full force, the main goal for his 2013 campaign is merely for him to have one, uninterrupted.
"I would have loved to have seen him be able to go out there and prove over and over again how great he is," Motion said. "But because he's been somewhat fragile, it's been kind of one race at a time."