Graham Motion stood outside Barn 22 the morning of the $2,171,800 May 7 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) and admitted he had no idea what to expect from Team Valor International’s Animal Kingdom, who was about to make his first career start on dirt. Motion was well aware that no horse had ever won the Derby making his dirt debut.
“I just don’t know,” Motion said. “The statistics are all against him, I feel good about running the horse, but it’s such an unknown. I love the horse, I love the way he worked over the dirt, and I love his attitude. He’s got everything going for him. It’s just that unknown.”
But as Jim Morrison said, “There are things known, and there are things unknown. And in between are the doors.”
Later that evening, Animal Kingdom burst through one of those doors, and awaiting him on the other side was Kentucky Derby immortality. By powering down the Churchill Downs stretch to a 2 ¾-length victory in front of a record crowd of 164,658, the unknown had become known. Racing had a new star and a legitimate Triple Crown threat.
But most of all, his victory unleashed a flood of emotions, a great deal of it resulting from the improbable victory by John Velazquez and the unusual circumstances that led to him winding up on Animal Kingdom.
In the past three years, Velazquez has seen his Derby favorite Quality Road withdrawn a week before the race because of a quarter crack, the heavy Derby favorite Eskendereya withdrawn several days before the Derby with a career-ending injury, and this year’s early favorite Uncle Mo scratched the morning before the race due to an intestinal ailment.
Although disappointed and frustrated, Velazquez understood that this sport can rip your heart out at any time and you have to learn to come to terms with it.
“What can you do; it’s part of racing,” Velazquez said later that day in the quiet of the backstretch. “One year we’ll win it when we least expect it.”
Never could he have imagined this would be that year.
When Robby Albarado, who was named to ride Animal Kingdom in the Derby, suffered a broken nose after being kicked by a horse and felt he was unable to ride the day before the Derby, it was decided not to take any chances, and they replaced Albarado with Velazquez.
“That call to Robby was a tough one make,” Motion said. “But when he took off his mounts on Friday that was a concern, and when Johnny became available, we decided to go with him.”
The Derby gods had made an uncharacteristic 11th hour appearance on the scene. Destiny had somehow brought together Motion and Velazquez, whose families have been close friends for years.
“We met Graham when he worked for Jonathan Sheppard,” Velazquez’ wife Leona recalled. “After he became a trainer and went to Florida for the first year, Johnny rode for him and they struck up a friendship. We became very close to Graham and (his wife) Anita. Then Anita and I became pregnant at the same time and our sons (Michael Velazquez and Chappy Motion) were born two weeks apart, and they’re best friends. You can’t make it up.”
Anita added, “We have dinner together and go to each other’s houses. When Animal Kingdom won, the first thing Chappy said to me was, ‘Does this mean I get to play with Michael tonight?’”
So, for the first time in Derby history, a jockey lost the mount on one of the favorites the day before the race and wound up being named on the eventual winner.
Add to the script Motion losing his big Derby horse, Toby’s Corner, winner of the Wood Memorial, four days before the race due to injury. Motion described the loss of Toby’s Corner as “brutal.”
The colt was scheduled to leave Fair Hill Tuesday morning when it was noticed he was lame. Toby’s Corner’s owners, Dianne and Julian Cotter, were already en route from Florida to pick up their daughter Carrie and her family in North Carolina when they received a call from Motion saying that Toby’s Corner had an injury would not make the Derby. They now had to decide whether to turn around and go home or continue to Louisville. They decided to keep going and try to enjoy the Derby experience and their new rooting interest, Animal Kingdom, who they visited almost every morning they were there. They were nothing but gracious and supportive their entire time in Louisville.
It was no wonder that emotions poured so freely following Animal Kingdom’s rousing victory, in which he closed his final half-mile in a spectacular :47 1/5, the second-fastest closing half ever in the Derby behind Secretariat.
Following the race, a stunned Leona was in tears, as was her 12-year-old daughter Lerina. Clutched in Leona’s hand was a wooden cross.
“The only other time I clutched this in my hand was when Rags to Riches won the Belmont Stakes (gr. I),” she said. “I still don’t believe this is happening. Up and down. Up and down.”
In the jockey’s lounge after the race, Lirena was still beaming through her braces, as Michael was off in the corner playing ping-pong. “I wasn’t expecting this,” she said. “I’m in shock. It was really awesome. My brother is only 8 and I hope he remembers this; he was crying hysterically.”
Perhaps no one was more emotional than Velazquez’s agent, Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero.
It was Cordero who discovered Velazquez from a videotape of the apprentice rider in action in Puerto Rico. Cordero brought Velazquez to America and mentored the young rider, eventually taking over his book. From the time Velazquez came to this country, he has looked up to Cordero as a father figure. After the tragic hit-and-run death of Cordero’s wife Marjorie in Jan. 2001, he felt his life was over. All he had to live for were his children and Velazquez, who he was determined to make one of the great riders of all time. Cordero said it was Velazquez and that quest that helped keep his life together.
Now both are inscribed in the history books as Kentucky Derby winners.
“He’s like my son,” said a visibly shaken Cordero. “I know how much I’ve dreamt this for him and how much I’ve wanted it. After what’s happened the last three years I could see he was down. When I saw him coming down the stretch I wished I could fly down there and ride that horse with him. When he crossed the wire I had tears in my eyes. I was yelling so hard I thought I was going to have a heart attack. It’s just destiny. It’s like a movie script.”
But the real hero was Animal Kingdom, who was bred by Team Valor, which keeps only eight broodmares. Another Team Valor-bred horse from the same crop was Pluck, who captured last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (gr. IIT) for Todd Pletcher. It was after that race that Team Valor president Barry Irwin decided to keep all their horses at Fair Hill with one trainer and sent them to Graham Motion, who he regarded as a “helluva trainer.” One of those was Animal Kingdom, a son of Leroidesanimaux – Dalicia, by Acatenango, who was trained by Wayne Catalano.
Standing by the gap on the Monday before the Derby, Catalano recalled the immature chestnut colt sent to him by Team Valor.
“He came from Randy Bradshaw along with another colt who was more advanced,” Catalano recalled. “Barry said to take my time with him. He was just a big, green, backward Baby Huey type of horse, so we took our time with him. He didn’t want to do much until we put a set of blinkers on him.”
Bradshaw always felt Animal Kingdom would handle dirt by the way he trained over it as a young horse. “I told Barry both were really nice horses, but my gut feeling told me Animal Kingdom will be better on dirt,” Bradshaw said.
In his career debut on Sept. 18, he came from 10th and last in a 1 1/16-mile maiden race at Arlington to finish second before breaking his maiden going 1 1/8 miles at Keeneland on Oct. 23.
“When he won the second start of his life the way he did going a mile and an eighth I knew he was a Derby horse.” Bradshaw said.
But that race marked the end of Animal Kingdom’s stay in Catalano’s care.
“A short while later, Barry called me and said he wanted to have all his horses in one spot and was sending them to Graham Motion,” Catalano said. “You’re always disappointed when you think you’ve got something special. But I’m happy to see him do well and that we kept everything good and didn’t mess him up.”
Motion put Animal Kingdom on the grass and he was beaten a head in a one-mile allowance/optional claimer at Gulfstream. It was time for the fates to take over once again. The plan was to run another colt, Crimson China, in the Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes (gr. III) on the Polytrack at Turfway Park and run Animal Kingdom on the same card in the listed Rushaway Stakes. But when Crimson China didn’t have sufficient earnings to get in the race, they switched and ran Animal Kingdom in the Spiral and Crimson China in the Rushaway.
Animal Kingdom’s 2 ¾-length victory put him in the Kentucky Derby. “In life, everything has to fit together,” Irwin said. “It’s nice to have the goods; it’s nice to be intelligent, but unless things go your way and you’re lucky, it’s not going to happen.”
Riding Animal Kingdom in the Spiral was Alan Garcia, his fourth rider in as many starts. After dismounting, an excited Garcia stated emphatically, "Wherever they want to go with this horse I want to be there."
Garcia was there alright, but unfortunately for him, not from the same vantage point. The next time he would see Animal Kingdom was from the back of Soldat as his former mount was blowing by him on his inside nearing the quarter pole at Churchill Downs.
It didn’t take long for Animal Kingdom to become a favorite in the barn. “He’s such a character and has the coolest personality,” Heather Craig, who began exercising the colt just before the Spiral, said a week before the Derby. “Originally, his exercise rider in Florida, Jodie Petty, would kick him in the belly to get him to go, and he would just turn around and go, ‘Really?’
“But since the Spiral, he’s been training like a machine, with these huge, bounding strides. Now he’s a true racehorse and tugs his regular exercise rider David Nava around the racetrack.”
Those bounding strides didn’t escape the eagle eye on Bob Baffert, who had Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) winner Midnight Interlude. “That’s the horse,” Baffert said emphatically after having watched Animal Kingdom work six furlongs in 1:13 on April 30 and observing his subsequent gallops.
It was that six-furlong work, following an unproductive work that didn’t go as planned a week earlier that convinced Motion and Irwin to point for the Kentucky Derby.
“If he hadn’t shown us what he did, we wouldn’t have run him in the Derby,” Irwin said.
The 137th Kentucky Derby, provided its share of human interest stories. The most publicized was trainer Kathy Ritvo, who had been near death before receiving a heart transplant that saved her life, and Mucho Macho Man, who was believed to be dead at birth, but miraculously jumped to his feet and ran off across the paddock. Then there was longtime local favorite Jinks Fires and his son-in-law and jockey Jon Court competing in their first Kentucky Derby with Arkansas Derby (gr. I) winner Archarcharch. There was 23-year-old jockey Rosie Napravnik with a legitimate chance to become the first female rider to win the Kentucky Derby on Louisiana Derby (gr. II) winner Pants on Fire.
One trainer who has been dreaming about the Derby since he was a child was Dale Romans, who grew up only three miles from Churchill Downs and between him and his father have been in the same barn for 40 years. Romans was confident in his colt, Florida Derby (gr. I) runner-up Shackleford, who he was planning to send to the lead and dare someone to try to catch him.
“My father trained mostly claimers and I started working in the barn when I was 8 years old, emptying muck baskets and filling up water buckets,” said Romans, who finished third in last year’s Derby with Paddy O’Prado. “I’ve spent more time in this barn than I have at home. We never thought about the Kentucky Derby back then. It wasn’t even a dream, because it couldn’t happen.”
One owner looking for a change in luck in the Derby was Ahmed Zayat, who saw his Santa Anita Derby winner Pioneerof the Nile finish second to longshot Mine That Bird in 2009 and then lost his red-hot Derby favorite Eskenderya in 2010. After a lengthy court battle with Fifth Third Bank later that year, Zayat bounced back in 2011 with several top-class 3-year-olds, but had to watch his best colt, Jaycito, fall off the Derby trail in mid-April.
But Zayat still had another classy colt in the late developing Nehro, who suffered narrow defeats in the Louisiana (gr. II) and Arkansas Derbys, closing fast each time. Zayat’s confidence soared as he spent the Thursday before the Derby with Nehro, kissing him while he was grazing, kissing him in his stall, and kissing him while he was being schooled. The colt was looking better physically by the day and was attacking the grass and his feed tub.
Kiaran McLaughlin, trainer of Fountain of Youth (gr. II) winner Soldat, has fond memories of watching his first Derby in 1979 from the roof of Barn 10 where he was working as a groom.
There also was a European connection, as trainer Aidan O’Brien sent over Ms. John Magnier’s UAE Derby (UAE-II) runner-up Master of Hounds.
Team Valor had come close in the Derby in 1997 when Captain Bodgit was beaten a head in the Run for the Roses by Silver Charm, and Irwin has been waiting ever since to return for another chance with a legitimate contender.
The big story all week was the condition of 2-year-old champion Uncle Mo, as rumors of his withdrawal from the Derby spread throughout the backstretch. Those rumors became reality the morning before the race when Todd Pletcher and owner Mike Repole announced that the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) winner would not run in the Derby.
With Uncle Mo out of the Derby, the clear-cut favorite at 5-1 was Florida Derby and Holy Bull (gr. III) winner Dialed In, trained by Nick Zito and owner by Robert LaPenta, who had teamed up to finish second in last year’s Derby with Ice Box.
At the start, Dialed In was squeezed and immediately dropped back to last, falling far off the pace, and on the inside it was apparent Archarcharch was in big trouble, as be continuously swerved, steadied, and bobbled. As Romans had predicted, Shackleford established a clear lead, followed by Comma to the Top and Soldat on the outside. Animal Kingdom broke alertly and was able to get a good position in midpack, while racing four wide into the clubhouse turn.
Shackleford continued to wing it unchallenged on the lead. After a solid opening quarter in :23.24, he was able to slow the pace down, getting his half in :48.63. Nehro, who had come from far back in the Arkansas Derby, was racing well off the rail in sixth, but in good striking position, with Mucho Macho Man right behind him.
Velazquez had Animal Kingdom in a comfortable spot and was able to ease up gradually while following Mucho Macho Man. Shackleford, meanwhile, was able to slow the pace down to a crawl, the three-quarters in 1:13.40, the slowest opening three-quarters since 1947, with Comma to the Top and Decisive Moment still right behind taking up the chase.
Around the turn, Corey Nakatani, on Nehro, wanted no more of the slow pace and gunned his colt into contention. Nehro now loomed menacingly on the far outside. Several lengths behind him, Animal Kingdom was reaching a critical point in the race. The traffic jams were forming and Velazquez was able to split Midnight Interlude and Watch Me Go to get out of one potential hazard, but there was one more move he had to make. As he cleared those two he had to outrun and clear a tiring Soldat and ease to the outside before a rallying Brilliant Speed could trap him in behind Mucho Macho Man.
He flew by Soldat and found a seam to the outside, giving him clear sailing out in the middle of the track. By now, Nehro was charging up on even terms with Shackleford, but was well to the outside of him. Shackleford, game as usual, held on tenaciously, but probably never saw Nehro.
The pace had picked up with a mile in 1:37.49. After turning for home, Animal Kingdom began to show his greenness, as he drifted in on Mucho Macho Man. Although there was no contact, it forced Mucho Macho Man in toward Pants on Fire, who was putting in a steady run. Velazquez threw a cross on Animal Kingdom and he began to drift in again, this time on Nehro. Velazquez had to go to a left-handed whip to get him off Nehro, and Animal Kingdom drifted back out. Velazquez then had to switch back to a right-handed whip, but by this point, Animal Kingdom was already in the lead and drawing away. This performance demonstrated how much raw talent this colt has, to be able to run a race like this in a 19-horse Derby field while racing greenly.
With his victory he became the first horse since Exterminator in 1918 to win the Derby with only four career starts; the first horse since Needles in 1956 to win the Derby off a six-week layoff; and the first horse ever to win the Derby having never started on dirt. With his pedigree, his versatility, and his powerful closing punch that he can sustain for over a half-mile, there is no doubt this colt’s future in limitless.
There also were a number of firsts regarding his pedigree. Leroidesanimaux became the first Brazilian-bred horse to sire a U.S. classic winner. Dalicia became the first German-bred mare to produce a U.S. classic winner. And Acatenango became the first German-bred broodmare sire of a U.S. classic winner.
Mucho Macho Man, who had been a bit late changing leads, began to show his best stride inside the sixteenth pole, passing Shackleford and nearly catching Nehro for second. From out of the pack, where he was surrounded by horses, Master of Hounds came flying late, weaving in and out as if he were a running back dodging linebackers. Once finally in the clear, he leveled off down on the inside and managed to get fifth in a three-horse photo with Santiva and Brilliant Speed.
As for Dialed In, he remained well back in last for the first three-quarters, and basically had no shot after a half in 1:13 2/5. He did pass horses in the stretch to finish eighth in the 19-horse field.
The final time was a respectable 2:02.04, with Animal Kingdom coming home his final quarter in :23 4/5, second only to Secretariat’s :23 1/5. This followed a :23 2/5 quarter, giving him his powerful :47 1/5 final half-mile.
One of the first ones on the track was Aron Wellman, vice-president of operations for Team Valor.
“Oh, my God, this is unbelievable,” he said. “He ran like a champion. This is what we dream about. It’s surreal.”
Watching back in Maryland at her aunt’s house was Becky Kelly, foreman at Fair Hill.
“That was just amazing,” she said. “We’ve always had a lot of confidence in this horse’s ability. My aunt used to be a trainer and I grew up having the dreams and knowing the importance of winning the Kentucky Derby. So it’s such an honor now to be affiliated with a Derby winner. We all work so hard and it’s an incredible team effort. And Graham makes it fun by creating such a great atmosphere.”
The only major casualty in the race was Archarcharch, who had that horrible trip early, had his saddle slip on the backstretch, and then was pulled up after the wire with what was diagnosed as a condylar fracture of the left foreleg, which is not considered life-threatening. But it did mark the end of a promising career. In addition, Pants on Fire bled significantly and Comma to the Top returned with a small ankle chip.
In another ironic twist to the story, Toby’s Corner’s jockey Eddie Castro wound up winning the $100,000 Beaugay Stakes (gr. IIIT) at Belmont Park on Derby Day with Daveron for Motion and Team Valor. Daveron’s dam, Darwinia, is a full-sister to the dam of Animal Kingdom.
No jockey – trainer team has been closer and more successful for so many years than Velazquez and Todd Pletcher. So, how fitting that one year after Pletcher wins his first Kentucky Derby without Velazquez, Velazquez wins his first Derby without Pletcher.
No such thing as the Derby gods, huh?
With the victors in the National Museum of racing for the traditional winner’s party, Ahmed Zayat and his son Justin were heading out of the track, exiting by the museum.
“How do you run second twice in three years and lose the favorite the other year?” a naturally disappointed Zayat asked. “That’s hard to take. It was Pioneerof the Nile all over again. He was doing so well and was so ready. But I’m very proud of my horse.”
Justin added, “We dream of winning this some day.”
Kathy Ritvo continued her amazing journey, and now has a classic-placed horse.
“He’s only going to get better,” she said. “He’s a June 15 foal. Hopefully, he’ll come back in a couple of weeks (in the May 21 grade I Preakness) if he’s doing well and we’re ready to go. He was fabulous today. He gave his all and finished strong. It was really exciting. When I saw him turn for home and he was running, I was jumping around and cheering him on.”
And so, one of the wildest and most confusing Kentucky Derbys is in the history book. Sometimes destiny takes a roundabout way of getting somewhere, but in the end it all makes sense.