Jockey John Velazquez celebrates after riding Animal Kingdom to victory… (Jeff Haynes / Reuters )
Reporting from Louisville, Ky.
Trainer Graham Motion and jockey Johnny Velazquez had miserable luck this week at Churchill Downs in the lead-up to the 137th running of the Kentucky Derby.
At the start of the week, Motion lost what everyone believed was his best horse, Toby's Corner, to a leg injury. By midweek, Robby Albarado, the jockey for Motion's second-best horse, Animal Kingdom, suffered a broken nose that put his status for the Derby in doubt.
By the end of the week, Velazquez lost what looked like his best shot at an elusive Derby victory when Uncle Mo, a horse most were calling the most talented 3-year-old in the country, had to be scratched because of a mysterious intestinal illness. It marked the third straight year Velazquez was slated to ride one of the favorites, only to lose him to an injury before the race.
Perhaps it's a testament to just how unpredictable the 2011 Kentucky Derby truly was, because it turns out the perfect formula for a victory was taking the two guys with the worst luck and putting them together with a horse that had never even run on dirt.
Animal Kingdom, a lightly regarded 20-1 longshot, won the Run for the Roses thanks in part to an excellent ride by Velazquez, and the record-setting Churchill Downs crowd of 164,858 was noticeably stunned as they crossed the finish line 2 3/4 lengths ahead of the pack.
Animal Kingdom paid $43.80 for the victory. Nehro, who briefly had the lead in the stretch before getting caught, finished second and paid $8.80. Mucho Macho Man charged late to finish third and paid $7. The trifecta was worth $3,952.
Velazquez didn't even know he was going to ride Animal Kingdom until late Friday afternoon, but Barry Irwin —head of the Team Valor International partnership that owns Animal Kingdom — made the call to switch to Velazquez when he became available instead of going with an injured Albarado.
"It's a dream come true for all of us," said Velazquez, who lost Quality Road, Eskendereya and Uncle Mo in consecutive years. "I guess it was meant to be. Things happen for a reason. People said to me 'Three years in a row. How could that happen to you?' I guess when it's meant to be for you, it's meant to be for you."
Motion was born in England, but he has trained horses in Maryland for nearly 20 years. He tried to play it cool after the race, but he couldn't really hide the mixture of shock and elation on his face.
"It really has been an extraordinary week," Motion said. "I felt really good about running both our horses. On Sunday, I worked both horses and I felt about as good as I've felt in a long time about anything. Then I walked in the barn on Monday morning and [one of my assistant trainers] took me aside and said, 'This fellow [Toby's Corner] is not right.' That's about as tough a blow as you can get going into the Derby."
But Motion said he thought Animal Kingdom could run well in the Derby, even though he had history working against him. Animal Kingdom is the only horse who has ever won the Derby without having previously raced on dirt. He was coming off a six-week layoff, and making only his fifth career start.
"This horse is special," Motion said. "He's just a very special horse. He's done everything we've asked him to do. Johnny said he was so relaxed in the post parade, which is a good thing. Johnny said I was relaxed too, but I think that was for show."
Animal Kingdom laid off the pace for much of the race, sitting as many as seven or eight lengths off the lead. But when it came time to run, Velazquez steered him outside and he began passing horses with ease.
It wasn't a particularly fast pace — the winning time was 2:02.04, fairly slow for a dry track — but Animal Kingdom had plenty of energy at the finish. The pre-race betting favorite, Dialed In, was never a factor and finished eighth. Calvin Borel, who was trying to become the first jockey to win three Derbies in a row, finished 10th aboard Twice The Appeal.
Archarcharch, a horse many thought might have a chance to be the first to win from the No. 1 post in a full field since 1938, broke a bone in his ankle at some point in the race, but the injury is not considered life threatening, and the on-track doctors said he could potentially race again.
Irwin wouldn't commit right away to running Animal Kingdom in the Preakness Stakes in two weeks, saying he and the rest of the partnership that makes up Team Valor International would discuss it.
"We're going to talk about the Preakness," Irwin said. "We'll put it that way. We'll see what we come up with."
Motion, however, was already thinking about returning to Maryland. He admitted he had tears in his eyes at the end of the race.
"I'm pretty emotional anyways," he said. "This is just extraordinary. He's just a magnificent animal. I didn't know for sure how he was going to handle the dirt, but he handled it brilliantly. We're looking forward to getting him back to Maryland and get back to Pimlico."