Remember Animal Kingdom? No, he isn't retired. He just hasn't been seen for quite a while.
The 2011 Kentucky Derby winner is scheduled to run Saturday for only the second time since fracturing his left hind leg almost 16 months ago in the Belmont Stakes. Trainer Graham Motion couldn't have picked a more ambitious spot: the $2-million Breeders' Cup Mile, featuring Horse of the Year candidate Wise Dan and English star Excelebration on Santa Anita's grass.
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"He's the best horse I've ever trained," Motion said, "and at this stage of his career, it's a great opportunity to take a shot at this race. He's exceptional, and that's why we're doing something that's a little out of the ordinary, I guess. That doesn't necessarily justify running him in the Breeders' Cup, but I just feel he's that caliber horse."
The huge chestnut colt's last race was an easy allowance win Feb. 18 on Gulfstream's grass course. It was supposed to be his prep for the Dubai World Cup, but three weeks later, Animal Kingdom was diagnosed with a fractured pelvis. Unlike his leg injury, it didn't require surgery, and after five months off, he resumed training in August. Motion said that during the summer, he mentioned the Mile to Team Valor International CEO Barry Irwin as a realistic goal "if the horse is doing well." He is, and Motion thinks Animal Kingdom's action is more fluid on grass than on dirt, though this will be only his third turf race.
"I think mentally and physically, he's really developed," he said, "and he's trained really well. So I would say he's ready."
Training thoroughbreds is among the world's least secure jobs, with everything a calculated risk. Before dominating the Derby by 23/4 lengths, Animal Kingdom had never run on dirt, so that gamble couldn't have paid off better. Motion sees the Mile's potential reward as well worth it, and Animal Kingdom's 8-1 morning-line odds will tempt some horseplayers to buy in.
"Everything has gone off without a hiccup, which is just amazing," he said. "At the risk of jinxing myself, he hasn't missed a work, hasn't missed a beat. If anything had gotten in the way, I wouldn't have done this."
No Derby winner has won a Breeders' Cup race since Unbridled in the 1990 Classic at Belmont Park. Motion can't see any reason not to challenge that streak. Animal Kingdom's future as a stallion is guaranteed, so there's nothing to lose.
"It's a very competitive race, no doubt about it," he said. "I realize it's a big undertaking, but I think this horse can do anything, I really do."