Animal Kingdom was hard at work at Keeneland on Friday, getting ready for his return to racing in next weekend's Breeders' Cup.
The fact his connections have laid such a task at his feet after all he's been through speaks volumes about their opinion of the 2011 Kentucky Derby winner.
In the past 15 months, Team Valor's champion son of Leroidesanimaux has made a total of two starts, betrayed by his own well-muscled frame. The first setback was a hairline fracture to his left hock that occurred in the aftermath of his sixth-place run in the 2011 Belmont Stakes. The second was a stress fracture of the ilium that knocked him out of this year's $10 million Dubai World Cup.
When the 4-year-old chestnut is healthy and happy, he makes a convincing argument for what he can achieve. That is why, despite his eight-month hiatus, his latest comeback will see him take on a field that features — among others — the top-ranked horse in the nation and perhaps the best horse from Europe not named Frankel.
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It has been a long and taxing road to get to this point. But on a perfect fall morning Friday, that last serious piece of work toward Animal Kingdom's return took place over the Keeneland turf.
Animal Kingdom put in his last major move in advance of his expected start in the Breeders' Cup Mile at Santa Anita Park on Nov. 3, covering 5 furlongs on the grass in 1:02.60 in company with Badleroibrown.
With trainer Graham Motion watching from the grandstand, Animal Kingdom broke off a few lengths behind his stablemate but had picked up enough to draw even around the turn. The two continued through the lane about on equal terms before Animal Kingdom edged away, finishing about a half-length in front.
"I just wanted him to do a nice work kind of within himself, and I think that's what he did," Motion said afterward. "He's had some hard works at Fair Hill (Training Center in Maryland), so it wasn't about him having a real hard work today. I thought it would be good for him to come here (to Keeneland) and have a transition before going to California and also get him mentally prepared."
In his first start back after the injury that ended his championship 3-year-old season, Animal Kingdom handily won a 11⁄16-mile allowance race on the Gulfstream Park turf in February in what was supposed to be a steppingstone toward Dubai.
For his latest comeback attempt, Animal Kingdom can't afford any hint of rust. Among the challengers he is to face are multiple Grade I winner Wise Dan, the top-ranked horse in the latest NTRA poll, and Group I winner Excelebration, who had five of his six career losses in 14 starts handed to him by the brilliant Frankel.
"I'd be afraid to do it with some horses, but he's just got such a remarkable attitude," Motion said of Animal Kingdom. "It's a big challenge but really everything has gone without a hiccup. For fear of jinxing myself, he hasn't missed a work, he hasn't missed a week. If anything had gotten in the way, I wouldn't have done this, but he's gotten us here.
"He's the best horse I've ever trained, and it's a great opportunity to take a shot in this race."
There is precedence for what Animal Kingdom is attempting. One of the more remarkable editions of the Mile came when Da Hoss, winner of the 1996 race, returned after having just one prep in the two years before his 1998 win.
Horses of exceptional quality can make the impossible materialize. During his eight career starts, with a classic triumph and wins over all three surfaces on his résumé, Animal Kingdom has convinced those around him he fits the bill.
"He was always a big, strong horse, but now he's even bigger and stronger," Motion said. "I think mentally and physically he has grown up. I think he's an exceptional horse, and that's why we're doing something that's a little out of the ordinary I guess."