The Kingdom of Redemption – Why Not ‘Animal Kingdom’ in the 2011 Kentucky Derby?

Kentucky DerbyI woke up this morning to a text message from my buddy Josh that I was hoping I wouldn’t receive, “Uncle Mo out of the Derby.” The thing is Josh doesn’t even follow horse racing. He just knew that I had been telling any and everybody who would listen all year long that Uncle Mo was going to win the Kentucky Derby. That news was very disappointing for not only me, but the sport of horse racing as a whole. To not be able to see this colt run at full strength is a shame but I applaud trainer Todd Pletcher and owner Mike Repole for putting the safety and health of their horse first and not letting him run unless he was 100%. For the past few weeks since his immensely disappointing 3rd in the Wood Memorial, Uncle Mo hasn’t been himself and has been fighting ailments. I along with most other horse racing fans was holding onto the bleak hope that he would make a full recovery in a short amount of time and run in the Kentucky Derby. But it just wasn’t meant to be.

So now what? Just because Uncle Mo won’t be running certainly doesn’t mean I won’t still be trying to find the winner of the 137th Run for the Roses. Once I came to grips with the fact that Uncle Mo wasn’t going to be running I printed off the racing form for the Kentucky Derby and went to work handicapping the race. Truth be told, I haven’t followed the Derby trail too closely this year. I kept a very close eye on Uncle Mo, but outside of him I needed to catch up on this field of 19 three year olds. I told my friend Johnny that I was going to look over the form and wait to see if one horse stuck out and had the right feel. Surprisingly, that only took a few minutes. The horse is Animal Kingdom.

(Click here to meet the horses in today’s race.)

I’m going to call Animal Kingdom the “Redemption Horse” for multiple reasons. He is owned by Team Valor International. ESPN Classic has aired a Kentucky Derby marathon all week long which I’ve loved watching. It’s pure nostalgia! The 1997 Derby was a particularly breath taking finish when Team Valor’s Captain Bodgit came flying to take on Silver Charm in the final 100 yards before the wire. No matter how many times I watch that replay, I still think Captain Bodgit has to go by. Yet Silver Charm fought back like the champion he was to hold off the furious run of Captain Bodgit by a mere neck. Team Valor has been an immensely successful racing stable. They’ve owned many great champion thoroughbreds and have won almost every single prestigious race in the country except for the Kentucky Derby. There have to been some painful memories of Captain Bodgit not being able to pass Silver Charm in the lane to win the 1997 Kentucky Derby.

Another person who has ran into some bad luck with the Kentucky Derby is jockey John Velazquez. Throughout the past five years, Velazquez has proven to be an elite rider. Johnnie V as they call him has ridden some of the greatest horses to victories all over the country. He has won an Eclipse Award for Most Outstanding Jockey and has won eight Breeders Cup races. Yet he has had the most unexplainable run of bad luck over the last few years. Two years ago, Velazquez had the mount on Quality Road who won the Florida Derby and looked to be the favorite in the Kentucky Derby. Quality Road however was scratched the week of the Derby due to a quarter crack on his right front hoof. Then last year, Velazquez rode Eskendereya to a ten length victory in the Wood Memorial and was shipped to Louisville as the horse to beat. Yet bad luck struck again when Eskendereya was scratched a few days before the Derby with a foot injury. And then this year guess what. Velazquez had the mount on Uncle Mo and, well you know the story. Three years in a row, Velazquez has had the mount on the horse who would have been the post time favorite and not one of them entered the starting gates for the Kentucky Derby.

Yet after a minor injury to jockey Robby Albarado earlier this week that will prevent him from riding in the Kentucky Derby there was an open mount for Velazquez to pick up. Guess who, Animal Kingdom. After all the bad luck Velazquez has had over the past two years wouldn’t it only be fitting for him to win his first Kentucky Derby on a pick-up mount?

When you take a look at Animal Kingdom there’s no doubt he’s a long shot. He was given a 30-1 morning line by the odds makers. Yet when you take a closer look at this three year colt, he shows tremendous upside. He debuted at Arlington Park last summer in a mile and a sixteenth race as the betting favorite. That tells me two things. One, this horse is built to run for very long distances. Usually trainers start their horses out in short races and then work them up to longer races. Animal Kingdom however was placed in a long two-turn race for the first race of his career. It also showed me that people who knew about Animal Kingdom were confident in him considering he was the favorite without ever running a race. He finished a respectable late-running second to a horse named Willcox Inn who has proven to be a solid runner.

(Click here to see the betting odds and make a bet.)

Animal Kingdom’s second race was an easy win at Keeneland going a mile and an eighth to break his maiden by just over three lengths at short odds. Team Valor then transferred this horse to trainer Graham Motion’s barn. Motion gave him four months to rest up and brought him back in a turf race at Gulfstream Park. That makes since considering Animal Kingdom has solid turf pedigree and Motion is one of the top grass trainers in the country. He ran a big race off the layoff only losing by a head to Powhatan County, an accomplished turf horse.

Then Animal Kingdom’s final prep race before the Derby was in the Grade 3 Spiral at Turfway Park. He was dead last going into the first turn and by the time the field entered the home stretch, he had engulfed his ten rivals to win going away by nearly three lengths. Most horse race handicappers will question the quality of that field. Turfway Park is also not a big name track like Gulfstream or Santa Anita which won’t bring Animal Kingdom as much attention as he deserves after that impressive performance.

So in Animal Kingdom’s four races he has proven to be a very nice horse, two wins and two second-place finishes. He has run over dirt, turf, and synthetic racing surfaces. He hits his best stride late and sports the best long distance breeding in the race. My friend Steven works on the backside at Churchill Downs and has kept a close eye on each and every Derby horse. He wanted to wait and see how each horse looked while training in the mornings before he made his decision on who was the best. He told me yesterday his final pick, Animal Kingdom.

So how great of a story would this be? Team Valor wins their first Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom and erases the memory of Captain Bodgit hanging at the wire in ’97. John Velazquez forgets about the last three Derby’s where he was taken off the favorite to win on a pick-up mount. And me personally, after many months of telling everyone Uncle Mo was going to win the Kentucky Derby picks my longest shot ever to win the Kentucky Derby. It sounds like there is quite a lot riding on Animal Kingdom in the 137th Kentucky Derby. Maybe by seven o’clock today this horse could prove to be the Kingdom of Redemption.

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