HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. — After Animal Kingdom won the 2011 Kentucky Derby, he lost the Preakness, lost the Belmont Stakes and suffered a leg fracture that put him on the sidelines. If he had followed the usual practice of the thoroughbred industry, he would never have raced again.
One of the banes of the modern game is the eagerness of owners to retire the sport’s burgeoning stars after an injury, instead of giving them time to recover, so that they can quickly cash in on a horse’s value as a stallion. Of the last four colts to win the Derby, three were retired by September of their 3-year-old seasons. The exception was Animal Kingdom.
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.”
He didn’t — not quite. As Wise Dan surged to the lead on the final turn, Animal Kingdom found himself near the rail, in traffic, forcing jockey Rafael Bejarano to wait, and wait, and wait for room to run. When the colt finally extricated himself and accelerated in the final furlong, announcer Trevor Denman called, “It’s Animal Kingdom like a rocket!” The rocket had launched too late, and Animal Kingdom finished second, 11 / 2 lengths behind Wise Dan.
But the defeat was as ennobling as his Kentucky Derby victory; Animal Kingdom had proved beyond a doubt that he is a world-class talent, emboldening Irwin and Motion to plan the climactic phase of his career, one that will take the horse from the United States to Dubai to England to his future home in Australia.
Around the time of the Breeders’ Cup, Australia’s most prominent breeder, John Messara, expressed an interest in bringing Animal Kingdom to his Arrowfield Stud as a stallion. Irwin was interested in his overtures, because he had long ago recognized that the horse is not a good commercial prospect in his homeland: “He doesn’t have a pedigree to which Americans can relate,” Irwin said. “It’s just not fashionable.” (He is a son of a Brazilian-bred stallion, Leroidesanimaux, a grass champion in the United States, and a German mare.) But a Kentucky Derby winner who also excelled on turf would have enormous appeal in Australia, where all the racing is on grass.
Irwin made the deal, selling a 75 percent interest in the prospective stallion, and Animal Kingdom will start his stud career in mid-September, when the Southern Hemisphere breeding season begins. He subsequenty will shuttle to the northern hemisphere for duty during its breeding season, in a country that Messara selects. (It probably won’t be the United States.)
Because Animal Kingdom must be finished with racing before September, Irwin and Motion envision a three-race campaign that begins Saturday, when their horses races at Gulfstream Park against the formidable Point of Entry, winner of three Grade I stakes on the grass last year. This will be his prep for the world’s richest race, the $10 million Dubai World Cup, run on Meydan Racecourse’s synthetic track March 30. And then, if all goes well, Animal Kingdom would end his racing career in a stakes race at Royal Ascot in June.
Few American-based runners ever try to win major races in Europe, and none has succeeded since Fourstars Allstar won an Irish classic in 1991. But Motion said: “I think it’s a very realistic goal. And, selfishly, it’s something I’ve always dreamed of doing. If ever a horse is going to do it, this is the horse.”
This is the kind of thinking that used to prevail in American racing, when owners ran their horses for the sake of sport and asked them to prove how good they might be. But in an era when so many 3-year-olds are prematurely retired, Animal Kingdom’s ambitious plans seem almost revolutionary.
For previous columns by Andrew Beyer, visit washingtonpost.com/beyer.