May 11, 2011

King of the derby animals

The story behind Animal Kingdom, and other Derby horse tales

Time will tell where Animal Kingdom will rank on the long list of Kentucky Derby winners. But he was certainly the best of the 19 colts that contested the 137th Run for the Roses Saturday at Churchill Downs — a deserving horse who ran down the leaders and won striding away.

Nehro finished second, with Mucho Macho Man coming along to be third. It’s the third-straight second for Nehro, and the eighth time in nine starts Mucho Macho Man has hit the board.

But the winner was less obvious. Coming into the Derby, Animal Kingdom hadn’t run in six weeks and was 20-1.

Animal Kingdom might have tipped his hand a week before in a workout at Churchill Downs. The horse had earned his way into the Derby starting field by winning the rich Vinery Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park. But that race was run over the synthetic Polytrack surface, and Animal Kingdom had never run a race on regular dirt, as at Churchill Downs. It is widely believed by handicappers — and horsemen — that horses do well on one kind of surface or the other.

For the Churchill work, trainer Graham Motion asked jockey Robbie Albarado to give his horse a whirl. The work wasn’t particularly fast, but the horse appeared a natural for the natural dirt. Longtime racing observer J.D. Raine noted that Animal Kingdom was “as smooth as could be over the dirt. You could set a glass on his back, and he wouldn’t spill a drop.”

Albarado was named to ride Animal Kingdom in the Derby. But he was taken off two days before the race in favor of jockey John Velazquez, who had become available when Uncle Mo was scratched. Albarado had been hurt Derby Week when thrown and another horse stepped on his face. Despite a broken nose and stitched-up cuts around his right eye, Albarado said he would be ready to ride by Saturday — and he was. But he was stuck in the jocks’ room for the Derby, with Velazquez getting his glory.

Fair? No. But jockey switches happen all the time, with agents wheeling and dealing behind the scenes to get their riders on the right horses for big races. No doubt Albarado would also have ridden Animal Kingdom to victory in the Kentucky Derby. He’s as good as Velazquez. It was the horse that was the winner.

Less straightforward was the ridiculous spectacle surrounding the scratch of Uncle Mo. Almost everyone knew Uncle Mo was not going to run because he hadn’t trained to his 2-year-old championship form, and the Derby is too long for his pedigree. But for some reason owner Mike Repole decided to enter the horse, only to ultimately scratch. A friend in New York called right after the draw for post positions on Wednesday to report that his source in Lexington was saying Uncle Mo would be scratched one hour before Derby betting began on Thursday, and that’s exactly what happened.

So why would Uncle Mo’s owner pay $25,000 to enter, just to scratch the next day, forfeiting the $25,000? Probably something to do with a stallion syndication of Uncle Mo, accompanied with an excuse why the horse had to be retired. In a couple of years, Uncle Mo will be spitting out a batch of Mini Mos who will also be sprinters with no chance to stay the 1 1/4-mile Derby distance. That’s the sad state of the American breeding industry.

Here’s another story: Repole also entered Stay Thirsty in the Derby. That horse drew post position four. When Twice the Appeal drew post three, a woman in the Repole Entourage evidently made a disparaging remark about the dog next door. The owners and trainer of Twice the Appeal just happened to be seated right in front of her. Trainer Jeff Bonde turned around and said sarcastically, “We’re so sorry our horse is next to your horse.”

Twice the Appeal finished 10th. Stay Thirsty was 12th.

Getting back to Animal Kingdom, the Derby winner is a handsome chestnut sired in Kentucky by Brazilian-bred Leroidesanimaux. Breeder/owner Team Valor is a an ownership syndicate managed by Barry Irwin — who often finds horses in South America and South Africa, then spins them around the world to race in Europe, the Middle East and the United States. Team Valor just missed winning the Kentucky Derby in 1997, when Captain Bodgit was second to Silver Charm.

It takes some doing to divine the name Animal Kingdom from the sire Leroidesanimaux. You have to separate the letters and pronounce it in French. When you say the sire’s name as Le Roi des Animaux, you get King of the Animals — and thus on to the new king of the Derby animals, Animal Kingdom.

What’s next for Animal Kingdom? Well, he’s just now blooming into a racing career that should take him on to the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, and maybe back here in the fall for a try at the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.