ELKTON — Prior to the Kentucky Derby, most horse racing handicappers and experts looked at Animal Kingdom as little more than a turf horse. He had never run on dirt, and his bloodlines seemed to imply he'd be far more comfortable on grass. He had very little racing experience, and in the four races he had run, he had four different jockeys.
Animal Kingdom was certainly pretty to look at, but to most people, he didn't feel like a Derby winner. Even the partnership that owns him had doubts the Run for the Roses was the right race for him. Prior to the first Saturday in May, anyone calling him a legitimate Triple Crown contender would have been laughed at.
A relatively easy victory in the sport's signature race, however, has a way of prompting reassessment. Animal Kingdom will likely go to the gate at Pimlico Race Course Saturday as the favorite to win the Preakness Stakes. Instead of talking about how surprising it was to watch a 21-1 long shot win the Derby, people are now buzzing about just how effortless he made it look. His inexperience is being viewed as a bonus, because at least in theory, he's expended less effort to get here than any Triple Crown contender in years.
So which assessment is more accurate? Was his unlikely Derby run a fluke? Or are we watching a budding superstar harness his powers at precisely the right moment?
Graham Motion, Animal Kingdom's trainer, doesn't typically throw around effusive praise. The England-born trainer, who has lived in the United States since he was 16, prefers measured, level-headed analysis. But in Animal Kingdom's case, he said the adoration is well-deserved.
"He's an amazing animal," Motion said. "I have a lot of confidence in him. He's the whole package, I guess, even though that's a term that's probably overused. He has a tremendous disposition, and he handled everything so well. He's just a brilliant horse."
But can that brilliance continue? Few things in sports are as predictable as the hype surrounding the Kentucky Derby winner as he heads into the Preakness. Every year — whether it's warranted or not — there is talk of a horse winning the elusive Triple Crown, something that hasn't been done since Affirmed in 1978. More often than not, that hype fizzles on the Pimlico backstretch.
Of the past 20 Derby winners, just seven followed it up by winning the Preakness. Some of the contenders quickly faded away, never to be heard from again. For example, last year's Derby winner, Super Saver, went into the Preakness as a 19-10 favorite. He finished eighth and ran just one more time before he was retired. In retrospect, the post-Derby talk of Super Saver's Triple Crown bid seems a bit absurd. He was a mud horse who ran well on a muddy day at Churchill Downs.
Does that mean we might one day view Animal Kingdom as a turf horse who just happened to win a Derby that was run like a turf race? The six furlong split — as Sports Illustrated pointed out after the race — was the slowest Derby pace since 1947.
Not necessarily, said trainer Todd Pletcher, who trained Super Saver. Pletcher gave an interesting answer when he was asked by a reporter if he was surprised by Animal Kingdom's victory, considering the chestnut colt was viewed primarily as a turf horse prior to the win.
"Maybe he's a dirt horse that had never run on dirt before," Pletcher said.
Barry Irwin, a former turf rider who heads the Team Valor partnership that owns Animal Kingdom, said he thinks too many people get hung up on whether or not a horse has run on a certain surface or not. Animal Kingdom is the first Derby winner who had never previously run on dirt, a fact most of the media and people who went to the betting windows couldn't look past.
"This getting hung up on 'No turf horses have ever done this, no synthetic horses have ever done this,' all that to me is nonsense," Irwin said. "The only thing that counts is what has this horse done and how is he trained and what do the connections think of him. With this horse, it's nothing but positives."
Motion said he feels similarly. A good horse is a good horse.
"Some of the best horses are the ones that are able to handle both [dirt and grass] and he appears to be one of those great horses," the Fair Hill-based traider said. "Maybe he is better on grass, but he's also shown he can handle dirt, and I think brilliant horses can do that."
Irwin said Animal Kingdom unique bloodlines are a big factor in his success. He is the son of Leroidesanimaux, a Brazilian stallion, and Dalicia, a German mare. Irwin has been an outspoken critic of the medications that many trainers use on horses in the United States to reduce swelling or reduce bleeding, and that Animal Kingdom might be a validation of that philosophy.