He is owned by 20 investors in a syndicate formed by Team Valor, and they got into the game because they wanted the excitement of watching their horses run. Trainer Graham Motion, a man renowned for his patience, has always believed that Animal Kingdom is an exceptional talent and wanted to prove it. They’ve had a long wait.
Animal Kingdom made an abortive comeback early in 2012 and suffered another injury. But at age 5, he is healthy and ready to embark on a three-race schedule that could establish him as one of the best thoroughbreds in the world, and might even make history. His campaign will begin Saturday in the Gulfsteam Park Turf Handicap.
The management of Animal Kingdom by Motion and Barry Irwin, the CEO of Team Valor, has been unconventional from the start. They sent their 3-year-old into the Kentucky Derby after he had made just four starts — three on synthetic surfaces, one on grass and none on dirt. His lone stakes victory had come in the minor Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park. The preparation appeared preposterous, but when Animal Kingdom rallied to win, Motion was rightly hailed as a training genius.
However, the horse’s performance was hardly one for the ages. He defeated a field that was average at best, and his speed figure was well below the norm for the Derby. If he had been retired after the Triple Crown, he would have been remembered as a one-race wonder like the gelding Mine That Bird in 2009 or Super Saver in 2010.
After Animal Kingdom recovered from his hock injury and returned to racing in early 2012, he suffered a stress fracture in his pelvis and was knocked out of action again. When he resumed training in mid-year, Motion hatched a plan that was even more audacious than his Derby venture. He decided to aim Animal Kingdom for the Breeders’ Cup Mile, where he would face some of the best turf milers in the world, even though he had won only a low-level race on the turf and he had never been viewed as a miler.
“A lot of people might have told me that I was crazy,” Motion said. Even Irwin was dubious. But the trainer said, “I always felt that grass was his preferred surface. In his training he did things that I’ve never seen a horse do. That’s what gave me confidence.”
Animal Kingdom entered the Mile at Santa Anita after a 259-day layoff to face the leading candidate for horse-of-the-year honors, Wise Dan, as well as high-class runners from Europe. If he won under these circumstances, Motion knew, “He’d go down in the history books.”