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Stars aligned for Animal Kingdom

Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom is walked in

Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom is walked in his barn by Elifeo Ochoa on Sunday morning in Louisville, Ky. (May 8, 2011) Credit: AP

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Animal Kingdom napped in Barn 22 at Churchill Downs the morning after he embodied his sire's name. The son of Leroidesanimaux became "the king of the animals" by coming out of nowhere Saturday to dominate the Kentucky Derby by 2 3/4 lengths in his dirt debut.

The 20-1 shocker in America's Race was an international production. The Kentucky-bred's sire was born in Brazil, his dam in Germany, his trainer, Graham Motion, in England, and his jockey, John Velazquez, in Puerto Rico.

Motion appeared yesterday on NBC. "When you do the 'Today' show, it hits home that it really did happen," he said. "It is an extraordinary feeling."

Velazquez didn't even know he had the mount until Friday. After the ailing Uncle Mo was scratched that morning, owner Barry Irwin offered Johnny V. the colt that ended his 0-for-12 Derby schneid. He replaced Robby Albarado, who broke his nose Wednesday and didn't ride Thursday and Friday. "The reason I took off Friday was to get well for Saturday," Albarado said, "but it backfired."

Uncle Mo's withdrawal was expected, and Irwin said that Thursday night, he and Motion considered switching to Velazquez. "If Robby rode Friday, we were going to go with him," Irwin said. "But if he didn't, it was going to be a telltale sign. That was a risk we were not prepared to take. We didn't just dump Robby to get Johnny."

Albarado, 0-for-12 in the Derby, won a stakes earlier Saturday. While returning to the jockeys' room one race after the Derby, the bitterly disappointed Cajun wouldn't let NBC take his picture.

Although Uncle Mo's owner, Long Islander Mike Repole, came up empty in his first Derby, he was thrilled for Velazquez. After his colt Stay Thirsty finished 12th, Repole embraced his friend. "I told him I was so happy for him and so proud of him," Repole said. "This had to be meant to be."

That's what Velazquez kept saying. "Mike was very emotional," he said. "He was so upset when Uncle Mo had to be scratched, but he was unhappy for me as much as for himself, and that means a lot to you."

Uncle Mo is out indefinitely, and trainer Todd Pletcher said the colt would stay in Kentucky until veterinarians pinpoint his internal problem. Pletcher "won't consider" Stay Thirsty for the Preakness, with the Belmont a maybe.

John Panagot, Motion's barn manager, said Animal Kingdom would take a 12-hour van ride Tuesday back to Herringswell Stable in Fair Hill, Md. Pimlico is just down the road. "Maybe 45 minutes," said Panagot, a former racing writer who grew up in Oyster Bay. Now he's based on a 350-acre farm where, improbably, the Triple Crown dream lives.

"We knew the [1 1/4-mile] distance would be no problem for Animal Kingdom," Panagot said. "The only issue was the dirt. He always could get over it while training, but a race is a different story."

That it was.

Notes & quotes: Mucho Macho Man (third, Derby) and Dialed In (eighth) are Preakness definites, with Nehro (second) and Shackleford (fourth) possible. Because Dialed In won the Florida Derby, he'll earn a $5.5-million bonus if he takes the Preakness. New shooters may include Pletcher's Dance City plus Astrology, Concealed Identity, Flashpoint, King Congie, Norman Asbjornson, Prime Cut, Sway Away and Mr. Common . . . Archarcharch (15th) was scheduled for surgery on his fractured left front leg Sunday. Dr. Larry Bramlage said a return to the races is possible.

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