The new Derby king

| May 11, 2011
Animal Kingdom crosses the finish line to win the 137th Kentucky Derby.

Animal Kingdom crosses the finish line to win the 137th Kentucky Derby.

In a Derby billed in this corner and everywhere else as one of the most unpredictable in memory, it should be no surprise that the victorious Animal Kingdom came home at odds of 21-1.

Team Valor International’s colt rallied from the middle of the pack and rolled to an emphatic 2 3/4-length victory over Nehro, Mucho Macho Man and the front-running Shackleford. He was clearly the best horse on Derby Day and could turn out to be the best of his generation.  But it will be a while before that is determined.

Here are the things that Animal Kingdom accomplished with his Derby victory:

  • Provide the first Kentucky Derby victory for English-born trainer Graham Motion, a soft-spoken Briton who has quietly become one of the most respected members of his craft in the United States. His skill has been validated by a Kentucky Derby victory in a week in which he also experienced the disappointment of an injury to Wood Memorial winner Toby’s Corner, which knocked that major contender out of the Run for the Roses.
  • A first Kentucky Derby win for John Velazquez, who was without a Derby mount when 2-year-old champion Uncle Mo was a late scratch.  But an injury to jockey Robby Albarado resulted in Velazquez ending up in the saddle aboard Animal Kingdom, one of the more unlikely turnabouts in Derby history.
  • Provided a victory in America’s greatest race to Team Valor International, one of the most successful of the racing partnerships headed by former horse industry journalist Barry Irwin.  The partnership also bred the winner. Team Valor just missed winning the Derby in 1997 when Captain Bodgit ran second to Silver Charm.
  • Became the first Derby winner to take the roses without having previously raced on dirt.  His four races, including a win in Turfway Park’s Vinery Racing Spiral, had come on either turf or synthetic surfaces.
  • Was a rare Kentucky Derby winner to take the race off just four career races and a six-week rest.
John Velazquez and Animal Kingdom head to the Winner's Circle after their victory in the 137th Kentucky Derby.

John Velazquez and Animal Kingdom head to the Winner's Circle after their victory in the 137th Kentucky Derby.

Animal Kingdom’s Kentucky Derby victory was notable on many levels. His acceleration in the upper stretch was impressive, and he simply blew past a strong group of rivals in Nehro, Mucho Macho Man and Shackleford. Their efforts just weren’t good enough on Derby Day to hold off this impressive new star.

Animal Kingdom is now the only member of this crop who has the chance to end America’s Triple Crown drought, which now stands at 33 years since Affirmed edge rival Alydar to complete the rare three-race sweep with a narrow victory in the 1978 Belmont Stakes.

His pedigree – he’s by the Brazilian stallion Leroidesanimaux out of the German mare Dalicia – is heavy on distance and stamina and makes him a strong candidate for success in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes, the jewel’s final crown. The impressive turn of foot displayed in his wins in the 1 1/8-mile Vinery Racing Spiral and the Derby’s mile and a quarter seem to make him suitable for the Preakness, the shortest of the Triple Crown races at 1 3/16 miles – a half-furlong shorter than the Derby – at Pimlico Race Course on Saturday, May 21.

But there will be new and fresh shooters awaiting him in Baltimore – at the time of this writing there were at least 18 possible contenders for the 14 spots in the Preakness starting gate – and some Derby 137 foes that will be awaiting another crack at the Derby king.  That group includes Mucho Macho Man, Shackleford and beaten favorite Dialed In, who lost all chance when he walked out of the starting gate and found himself far behind a moderate pace.  The Nick Zito-trained Dialed In finished eighth at Churchill Downs, but you can look for better in Baltimore if the pace is honest.

There was much to love in Animal Kingdom’s Derby win, but a couple of questions now must be answered:

  • Will he handle other dirt surfaces as well as he skipped over the Churchill Downs footing?  I’ve always believed the Churchill dirt is kinder to horses with turf pedigree than most other natural dirt surfaces. It’s a minor concern with Animal Kingdom, but still a question.
  • Will the Derby winner be effective on two week’s rest after having four well-spaced races coming into the Derby? Again, it’s not a huge concern, but it’s still a dangling question.
John Velazquez and Animal Kingdom head to the Winner's Circle after their victory in the 137th Kentucky Derby.

John Velazquez and Animal Kingdom head to the Winner's Circle after their victory in the 137th Kentucky Derby.

Animal Kingdom’s victory in the Kentucky Derby was not a fluke on any level.  It’s unusual for a new star to be introduced in the Kentucky Derby, but this Derby, with its wide-open field and string of big-odds upsets in major preps coming into the race, was tailor-made for the emergence of a horse like Animal Kingdom.

He left Churchill Downs early Tuesday and will train before only a handful of eyeballs for Motion at Maryland’s bucolic Fair Hill training center. It’s unlikely that Animal Kingdom will ship to Pimlico any earlier than the day before the race, so he will still be somewhat of a mystery horse when, and if, he slides into the starting gate for the Preakness.

The Derby winner has much yet to prove, but his wonderful run also holds much promise and the prospect of still-untapped potential. Team Valor’s colt has as much potential as any Derby winner in recent years to take additional strides forward in the weeks that remain in the Triple Crown series.

Who knows? In a year of seemingly endless Derby outcomes, we could end up with a major player for what seemed least likely: a Derby winner with a legitimate shot to end the Triple Crown drought.

photos by JACOB ZIMMER | chief photographer

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