Animal Kingdom and the Triple Crown: A History Lesson

 
Animal Kingdom at Fair Hill, training for the Preakness.

Usually there is a lot of buzz exiting the Kentucky Derby, with speculation about the possibility of a  Triple Crown. This year, not so much. Particularly amongst my horse friends, most of whom are very disappointed in this year’s Kentucky Derby. If you ask them why, they say, “Well, we won’t have a Triple Crown winner this year.” And if you ask them why they think that, they say, “Because when a horse is going to be great, you know it coming into the Derby.”

This is poppycock. Now, there is some truth to the idea that a Horse for the Ages usually is recognized as such relatively early in his/her career. But with our most recent Triple Crown winners being Affirmed, Seattle Slew, and Secretariat, we have forgotten that not every Triple Crown winner is a legend from the get go. (Horses for the Ages being somewhat rarer than Triple Crown Winners.)

Assault, after winning the Derby. Damn, that little horse looks tired.

Omaha was a son of Gallant Fox, an extremely popular Triple Crown winner. Omaha carried with him his sire’s mystique, which is probably why he was second choice in the betting at the Derby. He’d won only once as a two-year-old, with a whole bunch of runner-up finishes as a three-year-old. He was also a physically impressive horse, standing seventeen hands high, which no doubt encouraged the bettors. (For non-horse people, this translates to 5’6″ at the shoulder.) Omaha proceeded to win the Derby, the Preakness, lose the Withers, and then win the Belmont. So he won the 1935 Triple Crown, albeit with a loss thrown into that series of races.

Assault, who won the Triple Crown in 1946, took four tries to break his maiden, finishing his two-year-old year with two wins out of nine races. On Derby day, he was fourth choice in the betting, and won in slow time. The Preakness was the first race wherein Assault found himself the favorite. He won the Preakness, but not impressively, and it was Lord Boswell who was made the favorite for the Belmont. That race, however, proved to be one of Assault’s best, and he was a decisive winner of the final jewel of the Triple Crown. Assault was a plain, small chestnut with one deformed hoof, and maybe this fed into the general lack of respect for him. But over a 42 race career, he proved he was no fluke, winning 18 times and placing 13 times.

Sir Barton, who won the crown in 1919, had never even won a race when he entered the Derby. The only reason he was in the race at all was to act as a rabbit for his stablemate, Billy Kelly. (For non-horse people, a rabbit is a horse who sets a hot pace, knowing the pace will wear him down and leave him unable to win. However, the hot pace ensures a good set-up for a closing stablemate.) Apparently, nobody told Sir Barton he wasn’t supposed to win. He went on a streak, and by the time he won the Belmont in American record time, he no longer played second fiddle to Billy Kelly.

The "billy goat" Exterminator wears the blanket of roses.

Finally, I want to mention a horse who is not a Triple Crown winner, but is relevant for another reason. One of the many records or streaks broken by Animal Kingdom in his Kentucky Derby win was this one – “No horse since Exterminator in 1918 has won the Derby off of four starts.” At 30-1, Exterminator was a far longer shot than Animal Kingdom when he won the Derby. In fact, he wasn’t going to be started at all, but then his star stablemate, Sun Briar, turned up lame. Exterminator had been purchased not as a racehorse, but as a workmate for Sun Briar. When the trainer suggested they enter Exterminator instead, the owner of both horses was appalled that an unattractive nag like Exterminator would carry his colors. He actually called Exterminator “the billy goat.” But the trainer was persistent, and ultimately the horse was entered.

After his surprise Derby win, Exterminator did not go on to win the Triple Crown. But he did go on to win 50 out of 100 races and become a living legend, beloved by legions of fans.

My point is, the paths to greatness are many and varied. Over the 33 years since Affirmed won the Kentucky Derby, racing fans and the general public have become increasingly locked into what I’d call Secretariat Syndrome. We want a horse to come along and defy reality. I don’t know if Animal Kingdom will win the Triple Crown, but I can give you one guarantee – there will never be another Secretariat.

 But there might be a magical story unique to Graham Motion’s bright chestnut colt with the perfect star on his forehead, and I can tell you this – he’s better than a lot of people think. He covered the last half mile of the Derby in 47 seconds. Only one horse has ever closed faster – and that horse was Secretariat.

The Derby Gods Strike Again

Your Kentucky Derby winner, ladies and gentlemen...

Yesterday, I wrote the following sentence here on this blog:  I am always looking for the karma angle, and I have to wonder if this last minute switch from Robbie to Johnny isn’t a weird, cosmic shift to make an Animal Kingdom win more palatable.

I should have listened to myself more thoroughly. Thing was, Animal Kingdom had so much history to beat. In winning the Derby, he became the first horse since Exterminator in 1918 to win off of only four lifetime starts. He became the first horse since Needles in 1956 to win off a six week rest. Most importantly, he became the first horse in history to win having never raced over dirt before.

I love this photo of Animal Kingdom winning the Derby. Please note that he is the only horse with his ears pricked. People think horses are dumb, and do not know where the finish line is, do not know if they've won. They absolutely know where it is and whether or not they've won.

But I loved the horse’s looks (how could you not?) and I love, love, love the horse’s trainer. I previously went on and on about the glories of Graham Motion when discussing his training of Toby’s Corner. The same applies here. Motion’s horses are treated like horses. Fair Hill in Maryland is my favorite thoroughbred training facility in the United States. The horses live the good life there, in every possible way. I am also incredibly happy for Team Valor, who went all in with Graham Motion, putting all of their horses with him, and building a state of the art barn for him to use at Fair Hill. You’ve got to love it when someone is rewarded for doing right by the horse.

All that said, I’d dismissed Animal Kingdom early on, thanks to the four starts, the six weeks, and the lack of dirt experience. Because of that, I didn’t look more closely at the horse until the last minute switch to Johnny V. That’s when my antennae went up, because I sensed the Derby Gods in motion. I looked at some photos of Animal Kingdom, and remembered how handsome I’d found him to be. But even then, I didn’t stop and think the following thought: “Hey, this horse LOOKS like a dirt horse.”

Check out the definition of his serratus muscle. This is a horse with size and power. This is a dirt horse.

Because he does. He totally, totally looks like a dirt horse.  He carries a lot of size, and with that size comes strength and power. At the same time, his classy turf pedigree gives him incredible stamina. It might just be that we’ve found a very special crossover hit, here. I am reminded of Cigar, another great horse bred for the grass who didn’t find his best stride until they tried him on dirt. Or even Secretariat, a horse bred to excel at a something less than a classic distance, who found his best moment at a mile and a half. Horses that transcend their breeding don’t come along very often, but when they do, they are often our most special racehorses. Whether Animal Kingdom will follow in these illustrious hoofsteps we’ll just have to see.

In Other News:

Patrick V. did take care of Comma, who raced close to the pace until in deep stretch. When it became evident Comma was done, Patrick wrapped up on him and he wound up crossing the wire last. Once back at the barn, they discovered an ankle injury. It does not appear to be serious.

Archarcharch had a horrible trip, complete with slipping saddle and a leg injury incurred while Jon Court pulled him up. A very bad, no good Derby for Archarcharch. We’ll have to wait and see whether or not the injury is career ending.

The Todd turned comedian, making not one, but two jokes at Mike Repole’s expense. Completely shocking, in a good way. The Todd even smiled. Possibly in a, “Ha ha ha, this guy is driving me crazy, I don’t care if I make him angry, maybe then he’ll leave, ha ha ha,” sort of a way.

The Todd was also extremely gracious after the race, giving Johnny V a high five with so much enthusiasm you would have thought The Todd trained Animal Kingdom. It was almost enough to make me forget the owners of Sway Away, watching at home, sad and old.

On to Baltimore:

Animal Kingdom looked great this morning. I watched a video of him walking the shedrow, and he looked relaxed and supple. No evidence of exhaustion or stiffness. The plan is to go on to the Preakness. Also heading to Baltimore is Much Macho Man, who was a very good third for Kathy Ritvo. Apparently he, too, came out of the Derby well. Dialed In, the favorite who placed a non-threatening 8th, is thinking of going as well.

As the crab cakes get closer I’ll post further updates. Fingers crossed Animal Kingdom can get it done in Maryland. He definitely won in the right way in Louisville – strong, steady, and with something left in reserve.

Under the Twin Spires...and winning by a good margin, too.

Happy Derby Day!

Our Derby favorite, Dialed In. He definitely looks the part.

It is here, the First Saturday in May, arriving as late as it possibly could. Here are some thoughts to take us into the race.

So, great moments in small town living. I go to the local Bi-Lo, known as the Ghetto Bi-lo, because it is in Pendleton, and therefore small, old, crowded and raggedy. Clemson Bi-Lo is newer, bigger, and fancier, BUT! Ghetto Bi-Lo has WAY better produce and meats, and that store is CLEAN. I heart my Ghetto Bi-Lo. So anyway, I was there, in the produce section, and alas, there was no mint to be found. A produce guy was there, stocking green beans.

ME: Any chance you have any mint in the back?

PRODUCE GUY: Unfortunately, no. You a racing fan?

ME: YES.

PRODUCE GUY: I hear the big horse, Uncle Mo, scratched this morning.

Animal Kingdom, previously ridden by alleged wife beater Robbie Albarado, now ridden by Johnny V. Didn't I say he was a nice looking horse?

I proceeded to tell Produce Guy every down dirty rumor I’d heard, which may or may not be true. Rumors like – Mike Repole wanted to secure an extra three box seats, so he entered the horse, knowing he’d scratch. Rumors like – they wanted to shrink the field to benefit their other horse, Stay Thirsty. And I also told Produce Guy some cold hard facts, like, The horse had been looking like crap all week. His coat looked bad, his appetite wasn’t good, and while he was mechanically sound, he was clearly off. The Todd SAID this. OUT LOUD. While saying that they wanted to give Mo “every chance” to improve. Look, The Todd, you know and I know that if your horse looks like crap on Tuesday, has been looking crappy for some time, has been battling an internal infection – he’s not going to be up for one of the toughest races in the world come Saturday. SO WHY ENTER? Unless Mike Repole wants those extra box seats.

Meanwhile, Sway Away, who would have been in the race if Mo hadn’t taken up a spot only to abandon it a day and a half later, is on the outside looking in. His owners, who are in their 70’s, will probably never get the experience of having a horse in the Derby. But don’t worry, The Todd, Mike Repole, you just do whatever you want. (As a side note, I really like Sway Away, who runs with a fascinating, head-way-up posture. He’s a quick horse, but likely 1 1/4 miles isn’t his game. MUCH LIKE UNCLE MO. AND HALF THE FIELD. ANYWAY. I’LL TRY TO STOP SHOUTING.)

So! Our beloved Archarcharch, of Adorable Arkansasness Fame, drew the one hole. Heavy sigh, kids. Heavy sigh. Ferdinand won the Derby in 1986 from the one hole, but he had the immortal Bill Shoemaker in the saddle and the advantage of a come-from-behind running style. Does Jon Court want to drop to last to avoid the crush? Probably not, but he also might not have much choice about it.

You’ll have to trust me on this one, but as the post positions were drawn, I kept thinking, my horses are going to be in 7 and 8. As it turned out, Dialed In and Pants on Fire wound up in those spots. I didn’t mention Dialed In previously, as I have no special feeling for him, really, but I do respect the holy heck out of this horse. He’s all class, and Nick Zito thinks the world of him. While a Dialed In win would not be especially sentimental for me, it would definitely be satisfying.

In other news, Johnny Velasquez, The Todd’s top jock who was set to ride Uncle Mo, wound up getting a new mount in Animal Kingdom. Animal Kingdom is a nice looking chestnut trained by Toby’s Corner’s trainer, Graham Motion. AK has heretofore been a grass or synthetic horse, so we’ll have to see how he likes the Churchill dirt.

Twice the Appeal, Calvin Borel's mount, winning the Sunland Derby in New Mexico. Note the lush and beautiful landscaping.

Interestingly, Animal Kingdom’s jockey, newly minted wife-beater (allegedly) Robbie Albarado, was thrown from a horse on Wednesday and then the horse stepped on his face, breaking his nose and orbital bones. Sucks to get beaten up, doesn’t it, alleged wife-beater Robbie Albarado? So, Robbie is out, and Johnny is in. I am always looking for the karma angle, and I have wonder if this last minute switch from Robbie to Johnny isn’t a weird, cosmic shift to make an Animal Kingdom win more palatable.

Also interesting – Plum Pretty won the Oaks on Friday. She came out of New Mexico, like Mine That Bird. Some think the training/racing at elevation is what allowed Mine That Bird to decimate the 2009 Kentucky Derby. He was, of course, ridden by the great Churchill Downs jockey, Calvin Borel, who has won 3 out of the last 4 Derbies. This year, Calvin is on Twice the Appeal. And where has Twice the Appeal been training and racing? New Mexico.

In other news, this morning I procured two packages of mint, so I’m all set. Hope you all enjoy the Derby, and most importantly, that every jockey and every horse gets around safe and sound.

Hello, Behind the Bit-ers!

Stacey's beautiful Harv - BTB's most apt logo

Just saw Stacey sent you over here. (Heee!)

Although I am a lifelong horse person, have ridden dressage for – Holy Cats, y’all, I just did the math. TWENTY YEARS. Can that be right? Can I be old enough to have ridden dressage for twenty years? (A technical delegate has just reviewed the evidence and it turns out, yes, twenty years is accurate. Wow. This post just went from fun and fluffy to a headlong collision with my own mortality. Talk about whiplash.)

ANYWAY. Despite my horse-yness, I don’t often post about horses. For some reason, I tend to focus on bad song lyrics. But sometimes I do write about my four-hooved friends, including those with substance abuse problems, like Bob. Here is Bob’s Story.

For Fanfreakingtastic’s horse loving readers – and for those who are horse-curious – Stacey does the foremost dressage blog on the interwebs at Behind the Bit.

Kentucky Derby 2011: A Guide, Part 2

I mentioned in Part 1 the potential for a historical win for Kathy Ritvo, who trains Mucho Macho Man.  

Rosie Napravnik. Smart, tough, strong. My kinda girl.

 The Girl Who Was on Fire: There is another woman who could make history in the Derby – Rosie Napravnik. Rosie rides Louisiana Derby winner Pants on Fire. Rosie herself is on fire these days, having destroyed the competition at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. Red-haired and fierce, she reminds me a lot of my good friend, National Champion Becca Prichard. (Am I right or what, people who know Becca?) Rosie also is very smart, articulate, decisive, and gives a great interview. I’d really, really like to see her win. In part because of headlines like this. (If you don’t want to click on the link, the headline reads: Woman jockey rides Pants on Fire to historic victory in Lousiana Derby. Firstly, “Woman jockey?” Is that like a “woman driver?” And secondly, it’s TOO LATE IN THE GAME for this to be news. Seriously, Julie Krone won the Belmont a bazillion years ago. Chantal Sutherland won the Santa Anita Handicap this year. It’s time to move past this phase, and a good way to do it would be for Rosie to win the Derby, give a bunch of rad interviews, and remove the novelty surrounding “woman jockeys.”)  

Rosie gallops Pants on Fire at Churchill Downs.

Pants on Fire is a good horse, too. As a horse person, I love his looks, especially his beautiful, big eye. He’s been a Rodney Dangerfield horse this year, never getting enough respect. I’ve always liked him, and while I’d be surprised if he won the Derby, I wouldn’t be crazy-surprised.  This is what Rosie had to say about his win in the Lousiana Derby:  

“He ran with as much heart,” Napravnik said about Pants On Fire, “as a horse can run with down the lane…. He just dug in, and he really finished with all his heart. I don’t know where he’s going,” said Napravnik, who rode Pants On Fire for the first time, “but wherever it is, I’d like to go with him.”  

As it turns out, Pants on Fire is going to the Derby, and Rosie is going with him.  

Comma to the Top: It pains me to say this, but I don’t think Comma has any place in this year’s Derby. I don’t think he wants any part of running a mile and a quarter. But I have to put him down here because I love this horse. This horse tries with all of his heart, every single time. He doesn’t always win, but he wins a lot. His trainer had said he wasn’t going to go to the Derby, but then Comma gutted out an extremely close second in the Santa Anita Derby they decided to go. I know it must be hard to fight off the Derby Fever, but I have concerns about this decision.  

Comma to the Top, plain bay all over, but completely adorable.

Also making me unhappy is the presence of Patrick Valenzeula on his back. Patrick won the Derby back in the 80’s on Sunday Silence. Now 48, Patrick has battled a lifetime of drug addiction, as well as innumerable suspensions for reckless riding. Straight up – I don’t trust Patrick Valenzeula. I hope that as time goes on, he’ll have enough days of clean living and clean riding that it could be said he’s truly turned his life around. Right now, I’m not there yet with him. If I were queen of racing, I would have given him a lifetime ban several strikes ago. I’m not normally so judgey about addictions, but in racing, lives, both human and equine, hang in the balance of good decisions. One wrong move and everybody’s going down. This is why tempers flare. Here is mild-mannered Calvin Borel going after equally mild-mannered Javier Castellano. Calvin shouldn’t have done this, of course, but when your friend almost kills you and your other friends, you get a little angry. Had the offender been Patrick instead fo Javier, I think Calvin would have actually knocked him out.   

The one positive thing Patrick’s famous for is milking early speed. He knows how to win wire-to-wire, and that’s how Comma goes – he goes to the front and he stays as long as he can, and he has so much heart. And if, so help me God, Patrick Valenzuela abuses Comma’s heart, I will hunt him down and Calvin Borel him into next week.  

Top o' the morning to ya! Says Master of Hounds

Classing Up the Joint: Master of Hounds. He finished second to the outstanding filly Khawlah in the UAE Derby. A lot of people were super impressed by him, I was more impressed by Khawlah, who, after all beat him. Master of Hounds is from the mega-powerful Irish stable Coolmore, trained by the mega-successful Irish trainer Aiden O’Brien. Like I said, I wasn’t super excited. Lots of times horses who ship in don’t do so well in the Derby. And then I saw Master of Hounds get off the van, with a disturbing amount of confidence, and my, is he a fine looking horse. When he strode away toward the stables, looking around him, it’s like you could hear him say, in an Irish accent, “Oh, so this America? I haven’t seen it since I was a foal. It will be delightful to CRUSH THEM ALL UNDER MY HOOVES.”  

Two Quick Entries: And finally, I want to mention Decisive Moment and Twinspired. These horses are going to be loooooooooooong shots. But Twinspired is great at picking up checks. Not at winning, but at picking up checks. I love his consistency and his try. He’s definitely not the most talented horse in the field, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he got third. (He’s also a lovely dappled grey.)

Decisive Moment is a lot like Comma, he’s built for shorter distances. But he is another horse with a lot of try, tons of heart, and a horse who picks up checks. In the Jean Lafitte Stakes at Delta Downs he pulled off a pretty amazing win, having led throughout, then was passed in the stretch, then surged back to take the victory. That is a very rare thing for a horse to do. Plus, he has been training really well at Churchill Downs. And, imo, he has fairy tale black stallion looks, which never hurts. In entertaining news, his trainer Juan Arias, exercises the horse himself. WHILST SMOKING. Who does that? Juan Arias, that’s who.

Decisive Moment. Note cigarette.

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Twinspired, comin' atcha.