Can Animal Kingdom rule?

| May 18, 2011

With the emphatic victory by Animal Kingdom in Kentucky Derby 137 now safely in the rear view mirror, the second jewel of racing’s elusive Triple Crown looms Saturday in the $1 million Preakness Stakes at Baltimore’s Pimlico.

With America’s drought of Triple Crown winners now standing at 33 years, Team Valor International’s chestnut colt is the only one in his 3-year-old class of 34,000 or so foals that has a chance to complete the rare sweep of the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes for the first time since Affirmed completed the golden decade of the 1970’s with his 1978 Triple Crown.

Affirmed’s sweep was the third in that decade, following the legendary Secretariat, whose mythic 1973 Triple Crown was the first since the great Citation won the three races for Calumet Farm 25 years earlier, and Seattle Slew, who became the only unbeaten winner of the Triple Crown in 1977.

There should have been a fourth 1970s Triple Crown winner – and unprecedented third straight – in Spectacular Bid. That colt, on his best day, was as good as any horse that has stepped on an American racetrack in the last 75 years. But he was derailed in the Belmont, a defeat blamed in part on a safety pin imbedded in the colt’s hoof that led to a race day infection and poor ride by 18-year-old jockey Ronnie Franklin, who had the Derby winner on a sizzling pace better suited to 1 1/8 miles than the Belmont’s mile and a half.

Which brings us to the question of the week: is Animal Kingdom, a 20-1 shot on Derby Day, the horse that can end a string of more than three decades without a Triple Crown winner?

Should he do so, he would break the mold that yielded most of the previous winners of the Triple Crown in that Animal Kingdom won the Derby as a 20-1 longshot.

Of the 11 horses that have earned the Triple Crown, only Assault, the King Ranch star who won the 1946 Triple Crown; Omaha, a close second choice in the 1935 Derby to Calumet Farm’s favored filly Nellie Flag; and Affirmed, second choice by a razor-thin margin to rival Alydar in the 1978 Run for the Roses, were not the post-time favorite for the Kentucky Derby.

Only Omaha, who paid $18.40 to win as the $8.20-to-1 fourth choice to the three-horse Maine Chance Farm entry of Lord Boswell, Knockdown and Perfect Bahram, was a Triple Crown winner that could be described as anything big surprise on the odds board on Derby Day.

The only other genuine surprise in the series won the Triple Crown before anyone knew it existed. Sir Barton, the first Triple Crown winner in 1919, scored his first career victory in the Derby at the expense of his more respected stablemate Billy Kelly, but their entry was the $2.60-to-1 second choice. The winless Sir Barton had been entered in that Derby as a pacesetter for Billy Kelly, but his entrymate could not catch him in the run through the long Churchill Downs stretch.

Retroactive

Sir Barton became a Triple Crown winner retroactively after the three races were linked and the name “Triple Crown” was coined by sportswriter Charles Hatton after Omaha’s 1935 sweep of the three big American races for 3-year-olds.

So Animal Kingdom would clearly smash the mostly traditional mold of a Triple Crown winner should he win the Preakness and return three weeks later to take Belmont Park’s “Test of the Champion” on June 11.  A sweep by Animal Kingdom would be notable not only because of his longshot status in the Derby, but he would also be the most lightly-raced Triple Crown champion, with just four starts prior to the Derby, and the only Triple Crown winner with no racing experience on actual dirt prior to the Derby.

But Animal Kingdom proved on Derby Day that he is a very good 3-year-old whose best days are likely in front of him. He is in the hands of a gifted trainer in Graham Motion and his instant acceleration when jockey John Velazquez asked the question in the stretch on Derby Day was most impressive.

A solid field

He will face a solid field in the Preakness that will include Derby rivals Dialed In, the beaten favorite who had no chance when he trailed the field behind the slowest Derby pace since 1947; third-place finisher Mucho Macho Man; fourth-place runner and pacesetter Shackleford; and Midnight Interlude, who turned in a brilliant work at Churchill Downs on Monday that suggested that he could take a big step forward for trainer Bob Baffert and new jockey Martin Garcia.

Add a fleet of newcomers in the expected full field of 14 that includes Sway Away, fourth in the tough Arkansas Derby and excluded from the Derby because of insufficient graded stakes earnings, and Dance City, who ran third in a gutty run in Arkansas, and the Preakness will clearly provide a strong challenge to Animal Kingdom.

2 major questions

I mentioned last week that I thought Animal Kingdom had two major questions to answer in the second jewel of the Triple Crown:

  • Will he handle the dirt course at Pimlico as well as the course at Churchill Downs, which is often kind to horses with a turf-heavy pedigree like that of the Derby winner? And,
  • Will the lightly-raced colt respond with a big effort on two weeks rest?

A positive answer to both appears within his capabilities as Animal Kingdom asserted himself on the first Saturday in May. If he responds to his Preakness challenge with a similar effort, he has a terrific chance to become a mold-shattering champion of the Triple Crown.

Ironic change

It will be ironic should Animal Kingdom emerge as a true Triple Crown threat in a crop of 3-year-olds that appeared impossible to separate just two weeks ago. Of the Triple Crown races, he appears to be built best for the Belmont Stakes, its third jewel. So will be an exhilarating experience for racing if Animal Kingdom secures the second jewel Saturday.

Given his Derby dominance and potential for improvement, he has a terrific chance to win the second jewel. If he does, Animal Kingdom will head to Belmont with a tremendous opportunity to do what only 11 horses have done.

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