Sabtu, 07 Mei 2011

Animal Kingdom Produces a Day of Firsts

Late Thursday night, John Velazquez didn’t know what was worse, failing to get to the winner’s circle of the Kentucky Derby in 12 previous tries or not even making the starting gate with a certain favorite as he has in the past three years. He had gotten the news that Uncle Mo, last year’s Juvenile champion and latest wonder horse, was still not himself after a stomach infection and would not run here.

Last year, he had received a similar call about Eskendereya being unable to perform, and the year before that Quality Road. He had even already lost his mount in the Kentucky Oaks when his filly R Heat Lightning was injured earlier in the week. It hadn’t been a good week.

Velazquez’s mood improved when he got a phone call from the trainer Graham Motion, who needed a rider for a colt named Animal Kingdom. Motion, an Englishman, was having a bad week as well. His big horse, the Wood Memorial champion Toby’s Corner, had come up lame on Monday and was out of the Derby. On Wednesday, Animal Kingdom’s regular rider, Robby Albarado, broke his nose here when a horse bucked him off during a post parade, then kicked him in the face.

Did Johnny V., as he is known, want the mount? There were steeper obstacles to overcome, of course, beyond his 30-1 morning-line odds. (He wound up going off at closer to 20-1.)

For one, Animal Kingdom had never run on dirt. He was bred to be a turf horse, and had won the Spiral Stakes on a synthetic surface. But that was back on March 26, and the last horse to win the Derby off such a long rest was Needles in 1956. Even more daunting, he was lightly raced, and the last horse to win here off just four lifetime races was Exterminator in 1918.

“This is roller-coaster business, and I was more than happy to get the call,” Velazquez said.

As the field of 19 gunned into the first turn led by the speedy Shackleford, Velazquez started to feel good about the colt he had previously watched only on video. “He was so relaxed,” Velazquez said.

Ahead of him, Shackleford was loping the field through an easy half-mile in 48.36 seconds. Animal Kingdom was cruising wide down the backstretch in 12th place, and Velazquez was starting to like his chances.

“It was meant to be,” Velazquez said he thought to himself. “Things happen for a reason.”

Behind him, two of the major contenders were having problems. Dialed In, who was sent off as the 5-1 favorite, was struggling with the dirt being kicked in his face, and the rider on Archarcharch, Jon Court, was having trouble staying in his saddle after breaking from the No. 1 hole.

“My saddle slipped coming out of the gate,” Court said. “He never really was comfortable.”

As they circled the far turn, Velazquez let Animal Kingdom find another gear, then weaved him inside first before angling him out. As they hit the mile pole, they were sitting fifth behind Shackleford, Nehro, Comma to the Top and Pants on Fire.

“When I asked him to run, it was amazing,” Velazquez said.

Velezquez scrubbed at Animal Kingdom’s neck, and the big colt took off. Rosie Napravnik aboard Pants on Fire disappeared first. Corey Nakatani aboard Nehro got first jump on Shackleford in the stretch and blasted by him in mid-track. Velazquez gave Animal Kingdom more reins, and pumped in rhythm atop him, coaxing out gigantic strides.

“I knew we were gone,” Velazquez.

He shook his whip at Animal Kingdom to keep him interested, but really did little more than tap him. They crossed the wire two and three-quarter lengths ahead of Nehro. The Louisiana Derby champion Mucho Macho Man closed for third place.

Velazquez’s tortured week had ended triumphantly: He and Animal Kingdom covered the mile and a quarter in 2:02.04, rewarding his believers $43.80 for a $2 bet. With the $1.4 million first-place check, the son of Leroidseanimaux plumped the bankroll of his owners, Team Valor International.

Both Velazquez and Motion had won their first Kentucky Derby with the wrong horse. Earlier in the day, Velazquez had run into Albarado in the jockeys’ room, acknowledged his colleague’s misfortune and asked him about Animal Kingdom.

“He told me he was a very good horse,” Velazquez said with a smile.

A very good horse, indeed.

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