Despite layoff, Animal Kingdom should be champion

| November 17, 2011

The last two years of discussion regarding the Eclipse Awards that recognize the divisional champions of Thoroughbred racing have been miserable, venomous affairs because of overemotional debate surrounding the ultimate winner of Horse of the Year.

But 2011’s championship debate is genteel because there are no dominant horses or clear front-runners.

I like this year’s more genteel discussion. All the past two years proved is that our society now believes we can talk to anyone and everyone like people who spend their lives on talk radio.

There is still much racing to be done, and let this serve as my annual reminder that two months of racing remain each year after the last race in the Breeders’ Cup is run.

But I do have strong feelings on one potential champion, and his name should be familiar in a year that yielded no “household name” superstars.

That name is Animal Kingdom. Perhaps you’ve heard of him.

The surprise winner of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands was a meteor that streaked across the racing horizon in the first half of the year. He emerged with an emphatic win over Polytrack in the Lane’s End Stakes at Turfway Park, then became America’s most celebrated 3-year-old with stretch-running tour de force beneath the Twin Spires on Kentucky Derby Day.

No 3-year-old in America had a bigger performance in any stakes race involving members of the division, and it came on the biggest and brightest stage our sport can offer.

There is no arguing that his campaign was brief. He raced twice after the Derby and finished a fast-closing second to Shackleford, who was a well-beaten fourth in the Derby. His season ended in the Belmont Stakes, a race in which he suffered a season-ending injury in a rough break from the gate.

Yes, Animal Kingdom had only two wins on the year. So did Caleb’s Posse, who scored a pair of Grade I wins in the King’s Bishop, where he beat the star-crossed Uncle Mo, and the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, where he whipped a solid field that included Shackleford and some accomplished older horses. And how about Stay Thirsty, who won the Jim Dandy and the Travers, the race known as the midsummer Derby?

Caleb’s Posse is a wonderful horse – at one turn. He did run through the entire year, but was mostly invisible the first half of the year and was not a factor against top company at two turns.

You can make Stay Thirsty the top 3-year-old in New York, but not the nation. His three wins all came at New York tracks, but was never a factor in his two quality-check moments at Churchill Downs in the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Shackleford? He had a wonderful year for trainer Dale Romans and provided the Louisville-born trainer with his first Triple Crown victory in the Preakness, but that was his only win of the year. He ran harder than any member of his class and almost always ran well, but he needed to win one or two more to earn serious Eclipse consideration.

It is an unusual year when the nation’s top 3-year-old has only two wins on his résumé, but that’s what we have in 2011. And when one of those wins is the Kentucky Derby, the vote should tip heavily in Animal Kingdom’s direction.

The Derby is not like winning the King’s Bishop, the Haskell Invitational, the Swaps, the Travers, Preakness or Belmont. All of those are wonderful races, but there is only one Kentucky Derby and Animal Kingdom won it on the square. He romped to an easy win in the biggest race on any level in the United States, a race that is on the short list of events in the discussion of greatest sports events in the world.

In this wide-open year, Animal Kingdom had a very solid – if unfortunately brief – campaign. No other horse assembled a body of work that could overcome a glance at the scoreboard.

Animal Kingdom won the Kentucky Derby.

Any other 3-year-old needed to win about three major races to get in the same discussion with him, given the Derby winner’s victory in the Lane’s End and his big run in the Preakness.

The voters will decide and I don’t have a vote. But, for my money, you can start engraving that Eclipse Award that goes to the 3-year-old champion.

Hancock Honored

Louisville-based Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners is set to honor Claiborne Farm’s Seth Hancock with its annual Warner L. Jones Jr. Horseman of the Year award.

Hancock has led one of America’s legendary racing and breeding operations since the early 1970’s, when he ascended to the presidency of the farm at the age of 23 following the death of his father, A.B. “Bull” Hancock Jr.

He engineered the then-record stallion syndication of Secretariat, won the elusive Kentucky Derby for the farm with Swale in 1984 and has maintained Claiborne as one of the premier breeding operations in the world. The farm celebrated its centennial last year with a victory by Blame, owned and bred in partnership with Adele Dilschneider, in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Blame is now a member of the Claiborne stallion roster.

Hancock has led the family farm with dignity, a creative spirit, enthusiasm and a dedication to continuing and improving the methods that have made Claiborne one of the most recognizable names in racing.

Seth Hancock will be a wonderful addition to a tremendous roster of previous winners and will receive his award at KTO’s annual awards dinner Saturday evening at the Kentucky Derby Museum.

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  1. Glenn Craven says:

    I think you either have a typographical (or factual) error here, or else I’m just not understanding your point.

    “Yes, Animal Kingdom had only two wins on the year. So did Caleb’s Posse, who scored a pair of Grade I wins in the King’s Bishop, where he beat the star-crossed Uncle Mo, and the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, where he whipped a solid field that included Shackleford and some accomplished older horses.”

    I am a fan of Animal Kingdom and a BIG fan of Graham Motion, but if I had a vote, it sure wouldn’t go to him for champion 3-year-old.

    Caleb’s Posse had five wins in 10 starts this year; Animal Kingdom only MADE five starts.

    All five of Caleb’s Posse’s wins were in stakes races, including a G3 in the Ohio Derby (which hardly compares to the Kentucky Derby or even the Lane’s End) and a G2 in the Amsterdam. Among his G1 wins was the King’s Bishop, where he defeated 2-year-old champ Uncle Mo. … Say what you will about Uncle Mo being “star-crossed,” the reality is that his effort in the Amsterdam was excellent, especially off the layoff, and Caleb’s Posse bettered him. And, ultimately, I felt Caleb’s Posse’s win the Breeders’ Cup Mile was the performance of the weekend at the B.C.

    Animal Kingdom won the Kentucky Derby. He nearly won the Preakness. I’ve seen critiques of the field that faced Caleb’s Posse in the Ohio Derby, but the G3 Spiral Stakes won by Animal Kingdom was secured over no better a field — the likes of Decisive Moment, Twinspired, Beachcombing, Taptowne, Preachintothedevil, Son of Posse, Positive Response, Thirtyfirststreet, Glint and Rescind the Trade. There isn’t a LIFETIME graded win from anyone else in that field. Two of them STILL haven’t cleared NW2L.

    That just isn’t enough to be the 3-year-old champion unless someone has declared the Kentucky Derby a “win and you’re in” Eclipse title race.

    I think you can make a case for Caleb’s Posse as Horse of the Year in a season this “scattered” among the Classic and Older Horse divisions. He’ll likely be in the top two for champion sprinter (with Amazombie). And he ought to be the favorite for champion 3-year-old colt.

  2. Glenn Craven says:

    Don’t know where I came up with the “Lane’s End” bit. … Must have been thinking about the Spiral, which I then addressed later.

    Essentially my points remain the same. :-)