Heartbeats & Hoofbeats: Animal Kingdom—surprise Derby winner

Kentucky Derby News

By Susan Johnson
Copy Editor

The Kentucky Derby—where dreams can come true or be shattered in two minutes. It’s a place, Churchill Downs, and it’s a feeling—almost magical. But one thing remains constant; you can always expect surprises. And the 137th running was true to form.

Again, we had a case of “what might have been” when Uncle Mo, an early favorite, was scratched becasue of an intestinal illness. That still left 19 horses in the running—including one youngster, Mucho Macho Man, who won’t even officially be 3 years old until June 15, after the Belmont. He still came in third, a very credible performance, overtaking Shackleford, who led most of the way, then tired at the end.

But the eventual winner, Animal Kingdom, went off at odds of 20-1 and seemed to be overlooked by most handicappers. His owner, Barry Irwin, representing the syndicate Team Valor International, said after the race that he had gone through a series of trainers and finally found one that wouldn’t lie to him. Trainer Graham Motion must be very gratified.

For jockey John Velazquez, it was indeed a dream come true. Nominated for the Jockeys Hall of Fame, after three previous attempts and having lost the rides he was supposed to have, he  finally saw his luck change. Jockey Robby Albarado, originally scheduled to ride Animal Kingdom, suffered a broken nose three days before the Derby and had to bow out. Velazquez picked up the ride at the last minute, had a brief getting-acquainted period with his mount, and the rest was up to the horse. Equally amazing was the fact that Animal Kingdom had not raced for six weeks, had only brief experience, and had never raced on a dirt track before.

Humbly giving credit to those who had supported him, Velazquez didn’t shout or make a big deal out of celebrating the win. Unlike the exuberant Calvin Borel (who this time had to settle for 10th aboard Twice the Appeal), Velazquez remained low key while looking ahead with confidence. Immediately after the race, he said about Animal Kingdom, “He’ll really like Pimlico.”

In a side story, Arkansas Derby winner Archarcharch suffered a condylar fracture in his left foreleg during the race and was pulled out of contention by his jockey. Fortunately, his injury was not life-threatening, and with a hastily-applied splint, he walked onto the ambulance with no apparent distress. But after surgery to repair the fracture, veterinarian Dr. Larry Bramlage said there was significant cartilage damage, enough to end the colt’s racing career, and he is now retired.

The economy may be in recession, and budgets may be tight, but for this one day in May, with a record crowd of 165,858, people could forget their troubles and come out for a good time. Big, beautiful ladies’ hats and mint julep were present as usual.

In another “good news” story, romance has bloomed between two retired stars of the track. Curlin, who finished third in the 2007 Kentucky Derby but went on to win the Preakness, has been paired with Rachel Alexandra, 2009 Preakness winner, the first filly to win at Pimlico in 85 years. An ultrasound has revealed that she is now expecting and should give birth to a colt in February. Ah, love! More dreams in the making.

From the May 11-17, 2011 issue

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