Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Return of the Kingdom

Maiden Special Weight, Arlington Park, 9/18/10: “Animal Kingdom is pulled wide…Animal Kingdom stays on...Willcox Inn wins going away from Animal Kingdom.”
Maiden Special Weight, Keeneland, 10/23/10: “Animal Kingdom and Robby Albarado kicking on past the sixteenth pole…Animal Kingdom, the odds-on favorite, will take it.”
Allowance Optional Claiming, Gulfstream Park, 3/03/11: “Animal Kingdom coming again on the outside! Powhatan County holds on.”
Vinery Racing Spiral (GIII), Turfway Park, 3/26/11: “But it is Animal Kingdom now drawing away. He’ll win the Vinery Racing Spiral by two.”
Kentucky Derby (GI), Churchill Downs, 5/07/11: “And Animal Kingdom is pouncing late under John Velazquez. It’s now Animal Kingdom on the outside who goes to the lead for John Velazquez and he’s going clear by two lengths and running to the line. Animal Kingdom wins the Derby!”
Preakness Stakes (GI), Pimlico, 5/21/11: “Animal Kingdom’s in about the six path and beginning to close relentlessly on the far outside…Animal Kingdom on the outside begins to roar home. Animal Kingdom and Shackleford’s got the lead. Shackleford, Animal Kingdom reaching on the outside. Shackleford is doing it, Jesus Castanon a half from Animal Kingdom.”
Belmont Stakes (GI), Belmont Park, 6/11/11: “No, Animal Kingdom almost lost John Velazquez at the break! Animal Kingdom almost lost John Velazquez and he’s out of the irons there in the early stages of the race…And Animal Kingdom is still last and he’s far behind the field, but he’s closer than he was. He’s about twelve lengths behind Shackleford…And can Animal Kingdom make up this ground? He’s gaining ground…Animal Kingdom is on the far outside. Could he be this good? He’s down the middle of the track…Animal Kingdom won’t get there.”
These are parts of the race calls from all of Animal Kingdom’s races. It seems like a lot to go through for just seven starts, doesn’t it? The latter cost him the rest of the 2011 racing season. Since that dreadful June day, Animal Kingdom has not been spotted on the racing scene.
Let’s go back to Derby Day. I had picked Mucho Macho Man and Shackleford and was cheering for them, though it was Shackleford that had me screaming the loudest since I’d followed him since his maiden. However, I felt that about half the field had a decent chance. It was one of the most wide open Derbies I’d ever seen.
At the top of the stretch, it was Animal Kingdom that was coming on the strongest. The son of Leroidesanimaux went on to win by two and three-quarters lengths. Usually when a horse defeats one that I am a big fan of, especially in a race like the Derby, I am not very big fan of the winner. Yet the brilliance of Animal Kingdom was irresistible.

The way his ears pricked forward as he crossed the wire, the way he lit up the faces of his connections, and the way he carried himself reached through the television screen and into my heart. Animal Kingdom not only surpassed the top three-year-olds in the stretch, but he surpassed them in my heart as well. All it took was the final sixteenth of the Kentucky Derby for me to fall in love with Animal Kingdom.

I admit, Animal Kingdom wasn’t one of my top picks for the Kentucky Derby. I may have picked Drosselmeyer in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and told the pizza man to play Hansen in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but I did not have the winner of the Derby this year. But I don’t care. Horse racing isn’t about the handicapping for me; it’s about the horses. That’s why I didn’t mind that Animal Kingdom won the Derby. It was obvious that the chestnut colt loved to race and his love for running was infectious to me.
I followed him closely after the Derby, reading updates on him daily. I had a good feeling about the horse and hoped he could end the Triple Crown drought.
Unfortunately, it was not to be. Shackleford, who I still loved dearly, defeated Animal Kingdom in the Preakness. There I was, devastated that Animal Kingdom had lost. You would think I’d be overjoyed that Shackleford had won, but I wasn’t. I’d wanted him to finish second and Animal Kingdom to win. Looking back now, I’m at ease with the results, but at the time, I had Triple Crown hopes pinned on Animal Kingdom and they had been shattered.
Leading up to the Belmont, I was hoping that Animal Kingdom could punch a Triple Crown double. I wanted him to become the first horse since Thunder Gulch in 1995 to pull off a win in both the Derby and the Belmont. With his practically European pedigree that hinted that he would love the mile and one-half distance of the Belmont, it looked as if Animal Kingdom had a good chance to do so.
Those chances were crushed when the Graham Motion trainee was impeded at the start, causing him to lose his footing. As a result, John Velazquez lost a stirrup and was nearly launched from the saddle before regaining his balance. The race was over from there, though Animal Kingdom tried valiantly. He could have given up and remained the trailer, but instead he rallied with all his might to finish sixth in the slop.
However, his brave effort resulted in a season-ending injury. Shortly after the Belmont, a slab fracture in Animal Kingdom’s left hind leg was detected. To compress the fracture, he thereafter had two screws surgically inserted at the New Bolton Center, which is possibly most famous to racing fans for being the veterinary clinic where Barbaro was treated.
After resting after his surgery, Animal Kingdom began being led at a walk around the shedrow. In September, the Derby winner began exercising on an aquatred, which is a water treadmill for horses. For a month, Animal Kingdom exercised on the aquatred. It was then time for him to begin being ridden by a rider again. Though at the time he was only ridden along the shedrow at a walk, it was a huge step in his recovery.
Animal Kingdom exercised on the aquatred and jogged under saddle for about a month. On the Monday after the Breeders’ Cup, the winner of the Run for the Roses returned to galloping. Judging by how he looked in the video of his first gallop back, the chestnut colt appeared alert and happy to be running again. He still exhibited the class that draws me to him. He has a lot of catching up to do, but he is one of the classiest horses I’ve ever seen.
Animal Kingdom’s connections have set a big goal for him: the 2012 Dubai World Cup (GI). With ten million dollars on the line for one race, an international night of racing, and talented horses from all around the world, March 31, 2012 seems like it will be a great day. Only one Kentucky Derby winner, Silver Charm, has ever won the Dubai World Cup. With the extreme class Animal Kingdom possesses, it wouldn’t surprise me if that changed. Let’s all pray for him to continue to recover so well and to come back healthy and strong. This could be the horse that horse racing needs.

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