After a couple months of indecisiveness, trainer Graham Motion finally made a plan for Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom and stuck to it. Back in December when Animal Kingdom first started posting serious works following his recuperation period, Motion indicated that his charge would likely make his return in the Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap, run on February 11. When February rolled around, though, Motion changed his mind and decided to shoot for the Tampa Bay Stakes on February 25 instead. In an article published by the Bloodhorse, Motion stated, "The Tampa Bay will allow him enough works to be fit enough to start back. Any of these earlier races would have been pushing it." At the beginning of this week, Motion once again changed his mind and entered the colt in a 1 1/16 mile allowance optional claiming race on the grass at Gulfstream Park. Again, timing was key for Motion, who told DRF's Mike Welsch that a six-week turnaround (between a prep and the Dubai World Cup) was more favorable than a five-week turnaround. Motion was also worried that Tampa Bay Downs' turf could turn up wet next week and hinder his plans.
I seem to remember that the G1 Donn Handicap had been a possibility for Animal Kingdom at one point, and, if that is the case, then the colt's comeback race was downgraded from a possible Grade 1 start to an AlwOC start. Admittedly, I thought that the Donn was overly ambitious for Animal Kingdom's return to the track. Uncle Mo's comeback came in the G1 King's Bishop, but that was after just a four and a half month layoff and an illness, not an eight and a half month layoff and a major injury. So I was pleased when Motion changed his mind about the Donn. However, I was a bit puzzled when Motion decided to skip the TurfCap and wait for the Tampa Bay Stakes and downright baffled when he ultimately opted for this weekend's AlwOC race.
If the goal for Animal Kingdom all along had been a comeback in an allowance race of some sort, I would have been perfectly content with this weekend's race. However, that was not the plan, and the constant indecision has me slightly worried. Deep down, I know that Motion would not run his charge if he was not absolutely sure that the colt was ready to run, but I cannot help but wonder what has really prompted the change of plans. The ultimate goal of the colt's comeback has always been the Dubai World Cup, another decision that I am not entirely happy with. To me, running Animal Kingdom in the World Cup so soon after his return is so overly ambitious that I cannot come up with words adequate enough to describe how I feel. But if that is the plan we are sticking with, then an allowance race as a prep makes no sense whatsoever. So why the change of plans? Obviously the colt's health is not the problem since he is entered in this race. Fitness, perhaps? That seems to be the logical answer, especially since Motion implied as much in his interview with the Bloodhorse. Which leads me to my ultimate point. If Animal Kingdom's fitness is in question, then why is he still being pointed to the Dubai World Cup???
Animal Kingdom is an exceptional horse. Though I have not always been his biggest fan, I can see that he has had a career to be proud of so far. Before his disastrous run in last year's Belmont Stakes, the Leroidesanimaux colt had not finished worse than second in any of his races. He still managed to finish a respectable sixth in a field of twelve despite bumping with Mucho Macho Man, stumbling badly, and exiting the race with an injury to his left hind leg. I have no doubt that he will have as good a year this year as he did last year, but I do think that his return is questionable in regards to the ultimate goal. Since he is going to Dubai, a start in the TurfCap would have been more beneficial to him in terms of competition. Even a start in the Tampa Bay Stakes would have been better than this weekend's AlwOC race. Tampa Bay's surface would have been a better preparation for Dubai's surface than the lightning quick Gulfstream surface. Even better, a prep over a tapeta surface would have been ideal. Instead, Animal Kingdom will start in an AlwOC race and will have four to six weeks to acclimate the Meydan surface depending on when the team ships to Dubai. Maybe that will be enough. Maybe it will not. Only time will tell.
I wish Animal Kingdom and Team Valor the best of luck. Obviously Motion knows the colt better than I do. As far as trainers go, he is one of the best, and he always seem to make plans according to what is in the best interests of the horse. If he thinks this weekend's race is a sufficient enough prep for the World Cup, then who am I to question that. Training horses is not about making the fans happy but doing what is best for the horse. I may not be happy with Motion's itinerary for Animal Kingdom, but if it gets him where he needs to be, then I will happily eat my words.