LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The colt never had raced on dirt and was considered the second-stringer behind Wood Memorial winner Toby's Corner in trainer Graham Motion's stable. All of that changed for Animal Kingdom Saturday before a record crowd of 164,858 at Churchill Downs.
The 20-1 shot charged down the stretch like a wild beast for John Velazquez and dominated the 137th Kentucky Derby by 2¾ lengths. At the sixteenth pole, Johnny V. knew his 0-for-12 Derby schneid was history.
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Shackleford set moderate fractions -- 23.24, 48.63, 1:13.40, 1:37.49 -- while Velazquez bided his time. Animal Kingdom was 12th after a half-mile, 10th after 6 furlongs and fifth after a mile before making his move. He came six-wide into the stretch, took the lead in the final furlong and blew open the race.
"I had a really good trip,'' Velazquez said. "It was a little tight in the first turn and by the three-eighths pole, I was in a tight spot, but I held my ground. Once I pulled him out by the eighth pole, I knew he was gone.''
Velazquez had figured he'd be on last year's 2-year-old champion Uncle Mo on Derby Day. Instead, Uncle Mo was scratched Friday morning because of an undiagnosed internal ailment, and owner Barry Irwin asked Velazquez if he wanted to replace Robby Albarado on Animal Kingdom.
NBC showed Uncle Mo's owner, Nassau County resident Mike Repole, clapping for Velazquez. Repole's first Derby runner, Stay Thirsty, was 12th for jockey Ramon Dominguez.
Besides giving Velazquez and Motion, a native of England, their first Derby victory, Animal Kingdom is the only horse to take the Derby after racing only on turf and synthetic surfaces. The son of Leroidesanimaux (French for "the king of the animals'') ran 1¼ miles in 2:02.04 on a fast track. He paid $43.80 and earned $1,411,800 for his third win in five starts for Team Valor International.
"Somebody said are you surprised to win with a second-tier horse?'' Motion said. "And I said I'm not sure we would categorize him as a second-tier horse. He's just a very special horse and I was so impressed with how he handled everything today.''
Motion had to scratch Toby's Corner on Tuesday because of lameness.
Dialed In, the 5-1 favorite trained by Nick Zito, never was a factor and finished eighth.
Nehro ran a big race under Corey Nakatani to finish second, a neck ahead of Mucho Macho Man, who rallied powerfully but too late. Trainer Steve Asmussen was thrilled with Nehro's performance. Despite being stuck out in post 18, Nehro raced much closer to the pace than expected and briefly took a short lead while surging very wide into the stretch.
"The little horse ran unbelievable,'' Asmussen said. "I'm very proud of him.'''
Kathy Ritvo, who received a heart transplant 2½ years ago, felt the same about Mucho Macho Man, and Ritvo equaled the second-best Derby finish for a woman trainer. "He was fabulous today," Ritvo said. "When I saw him turn for home and he was running, I was jumping around and cheering him on.''
The other women in the race, jockey Rosie Napravnik and trainer Kathleen O'Connell, didn't make an impact, although Napravnik's ninth-place finish on Pants on Fire was the best by a female Derby rider. O'Connell's 33-1 shot Watch Me Go finished 18th.
Calvin Borel fans tore up Derby tickets for the first time in three years. The 44-year-old trying for an unprecedented fourth Derby win in five years, was 10th on Twice the Appeal, whose 11-1 odds might have doubled without Borel.
The day belonged to Velazquez and Motion, an old-school trainer based on a farm in Fair Hill, Md. "I was tired of having trainers lie to me," Irwin said, "and I wanted to give horses to one who would tell me the truth."
Motion, 46, has been training in the United States since 1991, and a fellow Brit asked if he still considered himself an Englishman.
"You'd better believe it," Motion said, "but this is the Derby."