Animal Kingdom was overlooked at 20-1 in Saturday's Kentucky Derby, but the chestnut three-year-old proved best in the end, rallying boldly down the middle of the track to win going away. He rewarded his connections - owner/breeder Team Valor International, trainer Graham Motion and jockey John Velazquez - with their first Derby success.
"First of all, I've only won a couple of really big ones and when it happens, it's just surreal," said Barry Irwin, Team Valor International founder and CEO. "You see it and you know what happened, you're there, but it's just hard to process. So that's my immediate thought."
Making only his fifth career start, Animal Kingdom settled in 12th during the early stages, approximately six lengths behind a slower-than-expected pace, and began to advance between rivals on the far turn. The late runner uncorked a furious move upon reaching the stretch drive, overhauling runner-up Nehro with 1/8 mile remaining, and drew clear in front of the 164,858-person record crowd at Churchill Downs, winning by 2 3/4 lengths.
"I couldn't see a whole lot from where I was sitting, so I picked him up just before the eighth pole," Irwin said, "I saw him storming, and my wife was going crazy, so I knew we were alive."
Irwin owns the German-bred stakes winner Daveron, and that connection was eventually responsible for Animal Kingdom.
"When the dam of Animal Kingdom came up for sale at auction and I noticed it was the same family of Daveron, I bought her and her first foal was Animal Kingdom."
In fact, Animal Kingdom became the first Kentucky Derby winner to have never raced on dirt beforehand. Motion explained the colt's remarkable versatility.
"I think it takes a certain kind of certain kind of horse to do that (excel on all surfaces), and I just felt confident that this horse could be a very, very special horse," Motion said.
"Yeah, it really has been an extraordinary week," Motion noted. "I felt really good about running both these horses. That's about as tough a blow as you can get the week of the Derby."
Velazquez went through an even more incredible turn of events in the 36 hours leading up to the Kentucky Derby. He is the regular jockey of Uncle Mo, the two-year-old champion who was installed as the 9-2 second choice on the morning line for the Kentucky Derby, but lost the ride Friday morning when Uncle Mo was scratched due to a lingering illness.
But Velazquez was in the right place at the right time to pick up the Animal Kingdom mount from Robby Albarado, who suffered facial injuries on Tuesday after being thrown and stepped on by a horse. Albarado still hoped to ride Animal Kingdom in the Kentucky Derby, but it became apparent Friday morning that he could not fulfill the obligation.
"I feel bad for Robby (Albarado), winning the Derby when he was here (in Louisville, Kentucky)," said Velazquez, a Puerto Rican native. "I know he got hurt."
Velazquez had little time to get acquainted with his new mount, but he came away very impressed with the rapidly up-and-coming colt.
"I talked with Graham and the whole thing was try to get as clean a race as we possibly can."
In a 19-horse field, Velazquez secured the perfect journey aboard Animal Kingdom, who was never checked in traffic and avoided losing too much ground after breaking from post 16.
"We just felt the most important thing about this race was having a clean trip," Motion explained. "That was how it worked out."
"It's a dream come true for all of us, obviously the jockey and the trainer and the owner," the 40-year-old rider said. "It's definitely one of those things that you have; now I can say I have a check mark on that one."
After breaking his maiden last fall on Keeneland's synthetic track, Animal Kingdom opened his three-year-old season with a close second in a turf allowance at Gulfstream Park. He was making only his second stakes attempt in the Kentucky Derby after winning the March 26 Spiral S. (G3) on Turfway Park's synthetic oval.
"(Writers) get hung up on no turf horses have ever done this, no synthetic horses have ever done this, that kind of stuff . . . all that stuff to me is nonsense. The only thing that counts is what has this horse done and how is he trained and what do the connections think of him."
The connections of Animal Kingdom have every reason to celebrate winning the Kentucky Derby.