Kentucky Derby 137 has come and gone, and before we move on to the Preakness let's take a few moments to dissect the race. I have several observations, but let's start out with the winner.
Congratulations to Team Valor, Graham Motion, John Velazquez, and the people that correctly sniffed out Animal Kingdom as the winner. He was a horse that I used in some of my tickets, but I did not back him for the win because he had too many question marks. Actually, the fact that he was a synthetic/turf horse making his first start on dirt was not the major negative for me. One of these years it was going to happen and let's be honest here, this was an extremely average group of 3-year-olds. This was a logical year for it to go down. As you know, I also backed Brilliant Speed, who was coming out of the Blue Grass. Because of the mediocrity of the field, I was open to anything this year.
The major negatives for me were that Animal Kingdom was so lightly-raced and that he came out of a prep, the Spiral Stakes, that wasn't a particularly strong race. I just didn't feel like he was well enough prepared to win the Derby off of four starts and a six-week layoff. If you would have asked Graham Motion before the race, he would have had the same concerns. Don't forget, this horse had a terrible work at Keeneland two weeks before the race.
As it turned out, he was peaking at the right time and had karma on his side. Couple those things with a perfect pace scenario (more on that in a minute) and you have a 20-1 upset winner.
The switch to John Velazquez from Robby Albarado was both fortuitous and a gutsy move by Barry Irwin and Graham Motion. It was Irwin that made the final decision to make the switch, but it was Motion that first recommended it on Friday when Uncle Mo was scratched. Velazquez is a better rider than Albarado and when he became available, give Motion credit for pulling the trigger. And if you believe in karma, then you have to believe that the two jockeys got what they deserved. I'll leave it at that.
Motion is a complete gentleman and deserving winner. You can't help but to be happy for a guy like that. He treats everyone in his barn with respect, is an honest guy with a clean past, and is a dedicated family man. In talking to his mentor, Jonathan Sheppard, after the race, I learned that Motion was not the natural horseman that I assumed he was. Sheppard said when he came to work for him as a 19-year-old from England, he was still kind of searching for what he wanted to do in life. His parents were both in the industry and kind of nudged him in that direction, but Motion was still not certain. At first, he wanted to be a rider but that wasn't in the cards. He struck Sheppard as a guy that was still kind of searching to find himself and it was only over time that Motion became passionate about training. Sheppard turned out to be the perfect mentor for Motion and all worked out for the best.
Sheppard, a Hall of Famer with both jumpers and flats, has now mentored two Derby winners--Motion and Barclay Tagg. "Now I have to get one for myself," he joked.
Irwin has taken some criticism for taking shots at trainers and racetracks in his post-Derby press conference. I have mixed feelings about the subject. I was at that press conference and was kind of puzzled that he would use one of the happiest moments of his life to bring up those subjects. It seemed out of place and was probably not the classiest thing I have ever seen. On the other hand, Irwin was probably right in what he had to say. Being in the industry for so long in many different aspects, he knows as well as anyone the way this sport really operates. He obviously has been lied to a number of times by trainers and is not happy about how racetracks treat owners. I give him credit for being honest; he has always been a straight shooter. I'm just not sure he picked the right time to do it.
As for Animal Kingdom, take nothing away from him. He was a deserving winner and a horse that has a bright future. I hope he runs well in the Preakness and gives us a thrill heading to New York. Being lightly-raced and peaking at the right time, Animal Kingdom has a lot going for him. But I think he will have a difficult time winning the Preakness.
I don't see any way he will get the favorable pace set up that he got in the Derby. The opening quarter, half, and six furlongs were the slowest Derby splits we've seen in more than 20 years, allowing him to stay within striking distance of the leaders. Yes, he ran a fast final quarter (:24.09), but that is to be expected after how slow they went early. In many ways, the 2011 Derby was run like a turf race. Go very slow early and make a big charge at the end.
There is no way the Preakness will shape up like that. There is some legitimate speed coming to Baltimore, including Flashpoint and Dance City. It will be a completely different race from a pace standpoint. That doesn't mean that Animal Kingdom can't win, but he won't have things set up as nicely for him.
Finally, just one last thought here. It seems that every year there a number of Triple Crown contenders that we never hear from again after the Derby. That is the nature of the race. Many horses are thrown into the race for a fleeting chance at glory. It's understandable. This year in particular, I'm predicting that 16-18 of the Derby runners we just saw will not be factors when the big races are run this summer and fall. Some will return to synthetics/turf, most will step down in class, and unfortunately, others will not race again.
I don't think we saw the best 3-year-olds in the Derby. We will have to wait and see how the year plays out, but I have a feeling there are some horses returning from the sideline and late-bloomers sitting out there that we won't hear from until later. The white-haired guy on the left coast is stacked and is holding a very strong hand.