achieved immortality on Saturday, May 7, 2011 – forever to be remembered as a Kentucky Derby (G1) champion.
Team Valor International’s classic winner, though, has some
unfinished business before he’s scheduled to begin stallion duty later
this year, and the 5-year-old Kentucky-bred horse will be given the
opportunity to add to his legend within the next few months, starting at
Gulfstream Park on Saturday, Feb. 9.
The $300,000 Kitten’s Joy Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap (G1) is
expected to be Animal Kingdom’s last start in the U.S. on a schedule
that includes the $10 million Dubai World Cup (G1) on March 30 and a
tentative trip to Royal Ascot in England for a final career start in
“You just hope you get to each one. The trip to Ascot, if we could
do that, would be the icing on the cake. To do that would mean he ran
very well in Dubai. Otherwise, we wouldn’t do that,” trainer Graham
Motion said. “To win the Derby and take the horse to Royal Ascot, how
much better does it get than that?”
Unfortunately, Animal Kingdom’s racing schedule has been interrupted
by two layoffs of eight months-plus since the 2011 Triple Crown
campaign due to injury, resulting in just two starts since his only
off-the-board finish in the Belmont Stakes on June 11, 2011.
“It’s a selfish thing, but it is frustrating. I’ve said it before
and I’ll say it now: He’s probably the best horse I’ll ever train. It’s
going to be hard to have a horse that I can say is better than him, so
not being able to run for a certain amount of time has been
frustrating,” Motion said. “I would have loved to have seen him be able
to go out there and prove over and over again how great he is. But
because he’s been somewhat fragile, it’s been kind of one race at a
Yet, when he has been able to compete in his two races, the son of
Leroidesanimaux has run impressively. After recovering from an injury to
his left hind leg that was detected after the Belmont, Animal Kingdom
prepped for a scheduled start in last year’s Dubai World Cup with a
dominating two-length triumph in a turf allowance race at Gulfstream
last February. A subsequent injury to his left hind leg, unrelated to
the first injury, put Animal Kingdom back on the shelf, but he came back
as good, or better, than ever on Nov. 3.
Motion and Team Valor International made a bold move by bringing
Animal Kingdom back from the long layoff in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup
Mile at Santa Anita. Although it was not a triumphant return and was
marred by two separate traffic issues for the Derby winner, Animal
Kingdom’s second-place finish behind Wise Dan, who subsequently was
named 2012 Horse of the Year, was remarkable and a credit to Motion’s
“The main thing is we never had a hiccup after getting started, and
he couldn’t have afforded a hiccup...except for when it comes down to
those two minutes,” said Motion said. “It’s only a sign of how good he
With big assists from his trainer and the adventurous Barry Irwin,
the founder and CEO of Team Valor International, Animal Kingdom has
often defied convention, most notably when he became the first horse
ever to win the Kentucky Derby in his very first start on dirt.
After racing twice over the synthetic surfaces at Arlington Park and
Keeneland when trained by Wayne Catalano in 2010, Animal Kingdom made
the first start of his 3-year-old season and for Motion on March 3,
2011, finishing second in a turf allowance race at Gulfstream Park. He
made giant strides on the Road to the Kentucky Derby by subsequently
capturing the Spiral Stakes (G3) by nearly three lengths over Turfway
Park’s synthetic surface.
Animal Kingdom made enough money to qualify for the 20-horse Derby
field, but he had to pass the dirt test in a workout before being
confirmed for what turned out to be a history-making performance.
“Had he not worked well, there’s a good chance we wouldn’t have run
him. Barry and I talked about it a lot and it really came down to that
work,” said Motion, whose Derby prospect worked six furlongs over
Churchill’s main track in 1:13. “I remember someone saying that (Hall of
Fame trainer Bob) Baffert said, ‘That’s the horse to beat,’ after he
watched the work. When somebody like that says something, it kind of
catches your attention.”
Animal Kingdom would catch the attention of the world with a
thoroughly dominating victory by 2 ¾ lengths in the Kentucky Derby,
giving his trainer, Team Valor International and jockey John Velazquez
their first successes in the first leg of the Triple Crown.
“I think the thing I remember most was at the three-eighths pole.
Whenever I’d run horses before, they always started to struggle at the
three-eighths pole. I thought, ‘This horse is just starting to run.’ I
think the three-eighths pole is what separates the men from the boys a
little bit. You find out who’s going to be there,” Motion recalled.
“Turning into the stretch, I remember, he was full of run and Johnny had
him in the clear. At the eighth-pole, all I could think was how cruel
it would be if someone came and beat him. When you finally think you’ve
got a chance to win the race, the cruelest blow would be to watch him
get beat in the last few strides. I’ve seen it happen so many times to
Finding the Winner’s Circle
Animal Kingdom and Velazquez found the Churchill Downs winner’s circle a little easier than Motion.
“I had no idea how to get to the winner’s circle. I followed Dale
Romans, who led me down to the winner’s circle,” said Motion, whose
guide had become well acquainted with the Churchill winner’s circle
while capturing 10 training titles. “I literally hung onto the back of
his jacket and followed him down.”
Although winning the Derby is a goal for most trainers, Motion
didn’t grow up in Cambridge, England with a dream to one day saddle a
Kentucky Derby winner.
“It wasn’t something necessarily on my bucket list. That’s not to
belittle it. I mean, I wasn’t brought up in racing in this country. No
disrespect to the Derby,” said Motion, who moved to the U.S. when he was
16. “It was almost an unrealistic goal. I never set that as a race to
win. Everybody wants to win it, but it had never been a thing when I
started training that I had to win the Derby. It’s very surreal to have
won it. The further we get away from it, it’s almost hard to believe.
It’s an extraordinary club to be in. It’s one of the most elite club’s
in racing. To be in a club with Baffert, (D. Wayne) Lukas and guys you
had huge respect for when you’re just starting in the game. You don’t
expect to be competing with them at that level.”
Animal Kingdom’s triumph in America’s most important race was of
particular excitement and satisfaction for Irwin, who arranged the
mating that produced the Derby winner.
“Every time we won a race with a homebred, people would say, ‘Is it
special?’ Like when we won with Pluck in the (2010) Breeders’ Cup
(Juvenile Turf). At that point, there wasn’t that much of an extra kick.
But for Animal Kingdom, since I’d bought the sire for a guy and
imported his dam and planned the mating, it did add an extra special
layer of satisfaction to it,” Irwin said. “To be that involved in that
many parts of it and to see it come to fruition was definitely different
Animal Kingdom fell just a half-length short of keeping his Triple
Crown sweep hopes alive in the Preakness two weeks later after breaking
slowly and lagging far behind in the early going.
“He just got away a step slow and the race kind of got away from him
the first part,” Motion said. “For him to win that race would have been
extraordinary – what he would have had to overcome.”
Animal Kingdom found far too much trouble to overcome in the
Belmont, when he was bumped shortly after the start and stumbled badly,
causing Velazquez to lose his irons. His first injury was detected
shortly after his sixth-place finish.
Animal Kingdom is scheduled to stand at stud in September at
Australia’s Arrowfield Stud, which recently purchased a majority
interest in his breeding rights. Irwin had planned on campaigning his
Derby winner for the entire 2013 season, but Animal Kingdom will only
have two, maybe three races to cap his racing career.
“We’ve sold 75 percent of him. We kept 25. It was not easy for us to
do it because, to us, the horse still hasn’t shown what he can do. The
whole package hasn’t been opened. When he was a 3-year-old, even though
he won the Derby, he did so with power. He didn’t do so with speed or
turn of foot. Last year, when he made that start in the Breeders’ Cup,
he showed a turn of foot we had never seen before,” Irwin said. “We
think he could be a monster, so it was difficult to sell him, knowing
the package hasn’t been fully opened yet. On one hand, it’s bittersweet
because we took some money off the table to ensure he’d have his best
chance at stud. But on the other hand we think there’s still a lot more
there and I hope we get to see it before he’s retired.”
Animal Kingdom might need to be a monster to prevail in the Kitten's
Joy Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap, which is expected to attract Point
of Entry, whose three-race winning streak in Grade 1 stakes was ended by
just a half-length after a troubled trip in the Breeders’ Cup Turf
(G1), and Unbridled Command, the winner of the Hollywood Derby (G1) who
will seek his sixth-straight victory.
“The big picture is getting him to Dubai. This race is an important
steppingstone. Believe me, he’s going to be ready to run, and it’s not
going to be easy,” Motion said. “But the big picture is getting him to
Dubai. It’s always been our goal to get there.”
No matter what happens in the Kitten's Joy Gulfstream Park Turf
Handicap and beyond, Animal Kingdom will still be remembered as a
Kentucky Derby champion.