The 2012 Breeders’ Cup proved to be a buffet of emotions, with a wide variety of storylines, memorable moments, and equine and human stars to choose from. The ones which affect us the most on a personal level will dictate how we will remember this year’s event.
Some people were moved by the rags-to-riches story of Groupie Doll and the Bradley family’s mom-and-pop operation. Some were emotionally charged by the brilliance of Wise Dan. Others thrilled to the gut-wrenching stretch battle between Fort Larned and Mucho Macho Man, whose human connections represent all that is good in the sport. Some will remember the courage of Shanghai Bobby, with Rose Napravnik aboard, and the herculean effort by runner-up He’s Had Enough. Still others were affected by Little Mike stretching his ability beyond what was expected of him or Royal Delta scoring her second consecutive victory in the Ladies Classic for two different owners. And what about the South American contingent of media members who went ballistic, cheering wildly for the 9-year-old Argentinian invader Calidoscopio?
And then there was Trinniberg, with his familiar red pom pom and the charismatic Parboo family, defeating the best sprinters in the country. Who would have thought that of all the star horses in this year’s Kentucky Derby, the one who would win a Breeders’ Cup race would be Trinniberg?
On the jockey front, how could you not feel good for veteran riders Aaron Gryder and Willie Martinez, who finally got to shine on the public stage or Brian Hernandez Jr, winning the Classic on his 27th birthday? I remember when Gryder was thrilled just to work an occasional Kentucky Derby horse for Wayne Lukas and now he adds a Breeders’ Cup victory to his 2009 Dubai World Cup score on Well Armed. I also vividly recall Martinez working Smarty Jones in :58 1/5 at Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby in what I called the greatest Derby work I’d ever seen. And then he goes on to glory aboard Brass Hat, owned by the Bradleys of Groupie Doll fame. And how about Hernandez winning the Whitney on Fort Larned this year and then having to fly down to Kentucky after the race to ride in a $7,500 maiden claiming race at Ellis Park the next day for Ian Wilkes?
For me, however, the horse that stirred the emotions and provided a moment in time that will be remembered for years to come isn’t even among the 15 Breeders’ Cup winners.
He is Animal Kingdom, whose spectacular burst of speed to finish second in the Mile left me in awe of this horse’s ability and fortitude and the training job turned in by Graham Motion. It was only a few weeks earlier that I ran into Motion at Fair Hill while visiting Paynter, and we discussed his decision to run Animal Kingdom in the Mile off a 259-day layoff and only one allowance race in 17 months. That he even made it back after undergoing surgery for a fracture in his left hind leg suffered in the Belmont Stakes and then re-injuring the same leg this past March while preparing for the Dubai World Cup was amazing enough.
When Motion and Team Valor announced that Animal Kingdom would make his first start back in the BC Mile it raised eyebrows. Motion said that morning at Fair Hill he realized it was a bold move to attempt such an undertaking, but he was inclined not to rush to get a prep race in him, feeling the colt had the ability to run a big race first time back and he didn’t want to risk having him regress off that effort in the Breeders’ Cup.
When I saw Animal Kingdom walking the shed one morning after arriving at Santa Anita, I couldn’t believe how massive he had become since the 2011 Belmont Stakes. Standing about 16.2 hands high, he had to weigh over 1,200 pounds – all of it muscle.
Having faith in Motion and believing Animal Kingdom was always destined for greatness, I felt he was going to run a huge race in the Mile, despite the presence of Wise Dan and the top-class European milers Excelebration and Moonlight Cloud.
But as the field came to the head of the stretch, I had already resigned myself to the fact that Animal Kingdom was going to get nothing and would be extremely lucky to finish fourth or even fifth.
His troubles started after turning down the backstretch when Moonlight Cloud made an early run on his outside, trapping him down on the rail behind Willcox Inn. He tried to move with the French filly, but had nowhere to go and nearly ran up on Willcox Inn’s heels, steadying sharply and dropping about two lengths farther back and some eight lengths behind the pacesetting Obviously, who was tracked by Suggestive Boy. Wise Dan, racing in third, was getting the perfect trip in the clear about two lengths off the lead.
Rafael Bejarano, who was not exactly having his best day, rushed him up right behind a wall of horses, some four lengths behind the leader. With Bejarano unable to ride him because of the traffic in front of him, Animal Kingdom had his momentum stopped again just as the first three kicked in for their final run. Animal Kingdom now found himself six lengths off the lead and down on the inside again as they approached the head of the stretch.
Turning for home, Animal Kingdom was pinned down on the rail with nowhere to go and only one horse behind him. Wise Dan had dead aim on Obviously and charged to the lead, with Animal Kingdom still trapped down on the inside behind Mr. Commons and his outside path sealed off by Excelebration. Animal Kingdom now had his head cocked to the outside as if he were looking for a way out. All Bejarano could do at this point was just sit on him and wait.
Winning was out of the question, as Wise Dan was beginning to draw clear of the field. At the eighth pole, Animal Kingdom was still back in sixth with nowhere to go. Finally, a hole opened between Mr. Commons and a rallying Excelebration and Animal Kingdom showed a burst of speed unlike anything we’ve seen in a long time. He exploded past Excelebration and then Obviously and hit the wire 1 1/2 lengths behind Wise Dan, who was had broken the Santa Anita course record for a mile.
All Animal Kingdom did was run a mile in about 1:31 4/5 off nearly a nine-month layoff, coming home his final eighth in a breathtaking :10 4/5 and final quarter in :22 1/5, despite not being able to run from the head of the stretch to inside the sixteenth pole.
It was heartwarming to hear the round of applause he was given as he returned following the race.
No one is claiming he would have beaten Wise Dan, but you have to think he would have been a lot closer than 1 1/2 lengths at the wire, considering the nightmare trip he had and how little running he was allowed to do. For him to overcome that and finish second and run as fast as he did was truly exceptional, especially considering this was not his best distance. This is a horse who won the Kentucky Derby going away and likely would have won the Belmont Stakes had he not had a near-disastrous spill after the start that cost him all chance. As it is he still made a spectacular move on the turn in the slop to reach contention only to falter in the stretch, suffering an injury.
As a postscript to the BC Mile, as he was pulling up down the backstretch, he came up alongside Wise Dan and the two actually looked as if they wanted to get it on. But then the outrider grabbed hold of Wise Dan. Animal Kingdom, however, wasn’t ready to call it quits and ran with them stride for stride until a second outrider had to come and rein him in, with Bejarano standing straight up to slow him down.
Motion was very proud of his horse, but also disappointed he never got a chance to put in his best effort.
“I was naturally thrilled he ran such a big race, but the disappointment of what might have been was overwhelming,” Motion said four days after the race. “I’ve had some tough beats, including Breeders’ Cup races, but this one was the toughest. I’m not going to say he would have beaten Wise Dan, but he would have made a race of it. He’s an amazing, remarkable, extraordinary horse. People question me when I say he’s the greatest horse I’ve ever trained, but the raw ability I witness every day is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”
Motion sent Animal Kingdom directly to Palm Meadows in Florida, where he will point once again for the Dubai World Cup. He said the colt came out of the Breeders’ Cup in great shape. He was “perky and full of himself” the morning after the race and has already been out for a jog over the Palm Meadows track. He’ll be given some down time before returning to serious training.
So, while I will remember fondly this year’s Breeders’ Cup and all the memorable moments it provided, it was the remarkable effort in defeat by Animal Kingdom that will endure over the course of time.
More BC thoughts
-- It is a shame there had to be such a severe speed bias on racing’s biggest stage where championships are decided. Of the five two-turn dirt races, excluding the Marathon, three were won wire-to-wire and the other two were won from a half-length back and one length back. Even in the sprint races, no one came from farther back than two lengths. It was a sad and frustrating sight to see top-class horses such as Flat Out, Ron the Greek, Richard’s Kid, Dreaming of Julia, Grace Hall, and a number of other closers pretty much spinning their wheels trying to make up any ground. Even the closers who managed to get up for third were beaten between 5 1/4 to seven lengths. Only Capo Bastone in the Juvenile managed to get within 2 1/4 lengths of the winner, and that was mainly because they staggered home the final five-sixteenths in :34 1/5, compared to :32 2/5 in the Juvenile Fillies.
-- If you look at Power Broker’s race on paper, it appears to be a subpar performance. But from a visual standpoint, he had absolutely no chance after getting forced five-to-six wide on both turns, refusing to change leads in the stretch, and racing greenly. Even losing so much ground every step of the way, he actually pulled to within a length or so of the leaders at the three-sixteenths pole after making a long, sustained run, was still only 1 1/2 lengths back at the eighth pole, and was beaten five lengths for all the money. With a half-decent trip there is little doubt he would have been a factor. He definitely is still one to watch on the Derby trail.
-- Winning is great, but not everything. Samantha Siegel had to be thrilled to see Include Me Out finish third, beaten 2 3/4 lengths, in the Ladies Classic at 12-1 after looking like a winner at the eighth pole, and the 7-year-old Rail Trip run a bang-up second in the Mile at 8-1. Although he came from eighth to get the place, he was only 3 1/2 lengths off the pace through most of the running, so he really doesn’t qualify as a deep closer. He did, however, finish nearly two lengths ahead of third-place finisher Delegation in an outstanding effort.
-- Talk about how close the world has become regarding international travel, Mikel Dezangles, trainer of BC Juvenile Fillies Turf winner Flotilla, flew from France to Australia to saddle Caulfield Cup winner Dunaden on Oct. 20, then returned home before flying to Italy to run in a group I stakes. He returned to Australia just to work Dunaden for a repeat try in the Melbourne Cup, then flew to California where he won the Juvenile Fillies Turf, leaving that same night for his third trip to Australia in two weeks to saddle Dunaden in the Melbourne Cup.
-- Now that Calidoscopio has made a shambles out of the Marathon, isn’t it about time the Breeders’ Cup opens the door to the classic-type horses from the Southern Hemisphere without having them pay outlandish supplementary fees? South America has proven time and again over the years that they produce outstanding horses who can compete with anyone in the world. Just look what they and other Southern Hemisphere horses have accomplished in Dubai.
-- If you’re wondering whether Coolmore and Aidan O’Brien might be inclined to point Juvenile Turf winner George Vancouver to the Kentucky Derby, be aware that his sire, Henrythenavigator, finished second in the BC Classic on a synthetic track and his dam, Versailles Treaty, won the Alabama, Ruffian, Test, and Gazelle, and finished second twice in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff and second twice in the Beldame for Wheatley Stable. Versailles Treaty is by Danzig, out of a Buckpasser mare and her second dam, Exclusive Dancer, produced Travers winner and Kentucky Derby runner-up General Assembly. Exclusive Dancer also is a half (or three-quarter) sister to Exclusive Native, sire of Hall of Famers Affirmed and Genuine Risk.
-- Europeans in general didn’t fare as well as they had hoped, but overall, they did sweep both 2-year-old turf races and added two thirds and three fourths. Their main hopes – St. Nicholas Abbey, Excelebration, The Fugue, Ridasiyna, Dundonnell, and Shareta, all ran well, picking up a piece of the purse, with only Sky Lantern, the favorite for the Juvenile Fillies Turf, failing to get a check, and she had a terrible trip, trapped along the rail with nowhere to run in the stretch.
All photos by Steve Haskin
Animal Kingdom heads to the track.
A final indignity, as a frustrated Animal Kingdom has to watch Wise Dan's jockey being interviewed after the race.
A statuesque Wise Dan is oblivious to all the turmoil around him, as he practices his winner's circle pose while being washed.
One of the great feel-good stories, as Groupie Doll storms home in the F&M Sprint.
Shanghai Bobby digs in to hold off He's Had Enough in the Juvenile.
Little Mike and Little Nick help lead in the Big Little Mike after his BC Turf win.