After Kentucky Derby win, can Animal Kingdom take Preakness? (cont.)
Numerous turf writers and handicappers have posted Animal Kingdom's come-home splits, ranging from 24.72 on the backstretch, 23.55 on the turn and 24.12 in the homestretch to 47.02 for the closing half mile. Personally, I had him in 23.60 on the turn and 24.03 for the stretch. Any of these times are impressive; AK ran the last half mile of the race between two and three seconds faster than the interior half mile between furlongs two and six.
There are two ways to interpret this and frankly, no way to tell which is more defining. First, it's generally considered more difficult to win from behind off a slow pace, because the leaders won't collapse. So kudos to Animal Kingdom there. But it's also more likely that a horse will close fast off a slow pace, because he's not as tired. (He just might not win, because the leaders aren't as tired, either.) Animal Kingdom did close fast off a slow pace and did catch the leaders, because the leaders collapsed anyway. Probably because they're not good racehorses.
The question becomes whether Animal Kingdom can relax as effectively behind a faster pace and finish with as much kick. Guessing pace scenarios is always dicey, but it seems likely the Preakness will go faster than the Derby. Does Animal Kingdom have what racetrackers call a "high cruising speed,'' which would enable him to chill at a faster pace and still finish? We just don't know. But it will be a critical element of the Preakness.
There's no criticizing Velazquez's ride. It was superb. He didn't panic early and settled a lightly-raced horse. He had to make one decisive move, splitting Soldat and Santiva on the turn, and he did it at precisely the right moment. Then he swung outside for a clear run at the wire. Animal Kingdom drifted right a little, running 10 furlongs for the first time.
The circumstances under which Velazquez got the mount remain a tiny bit unsettling. Former jockey Robby Albarado was thrown and kicked by a horse three days before the Derby. He suffered a broken nose, black eye and lacerations (and that clinical description doesn't begin to capture how bad Albarado looked; think zombie movie). But jockeys are incredibly tough athletes. Albarado, who, incidentally, worked Animal Kingdom in his one dirt session, took Thursday off and then, in consultation with his agent, also took Friday off.
The off days spooked Irwin and Motion so they jumped on Velazquez, who had lost his Derby mount when Uncle Mo was scratched Friday morning. It's easy to understand why Irwin and Motion (and ultimately, it was Irwin's call; Motion was loathe to fire Albarado) would want the healthiest jockey possible. Both are world-class riders -- Albarado rode Curlin and Velazquez rode Rags to Riches in the Belmont in 2007 and they were side-by-side in that homestretch.
But why didn't Albarado consult with Irwin and Motion before staying home on Friday? He told me on Saturday that he was just resting to ready himself for the Derby. That wasn't good enough for Animal Kingdom's connections. Irwin and Velazquez have said they will write Albarado a check, which is classy. But it's not the same as winning the Derby.
Since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978, 11 horses have won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness (but not the Belmont Stakes). The average number of lifetime starts for these horses coming out of the Derby is 9.3 (The most is Charismatic with 15; the least Big Brown with four). A look at the full list:
|Derby-Preakness winners since last Triple Crown (1978)|
Animal Kingdom has made five lifetime starts. That puts him on the low end of this list, ahead of only Big Brown (who easily won the Preakness and then failed mysteriously in the Belmont). Racing has changed; horses generally run fewer races. Again, the experience factor cuts two ways -- Animal Kingdom is a fresh horse, but he also is still low on the learning curve.
His greatest advantage going forward might be this: The competition at the Preakness appears relatively weak. Derby favorite Dialed In, who will be running for a funky, $5.5 million bonus in the Preakness (based on earlier wins), closed to finish eighth at Churchill, but fell far behind the dawdling pace in the Derby. He might just be a slow horse. Shackleford will be back, but he'll have to run faster than he did in Kentucky. Third-place Derby finisher Mucho Macho Man also had a near-perfect trip and finished well, but not nearly as well as Animal Kingdom.
There will be several horses entered who did not run in the Derby, most notably Jerome Handicap runner-up Astrology. Animal Kingdom is likely to be a significant favorite. But then again, so was Super Saver; the public gets enamored with Derby winners. So back to the beginning.
What to make of the Derby winner? He's a good horse. Maybe very good. Still a few question marks remain that will be overlooked in the coming Triple Crown frenzy. I'd like to see him get two races in the books before talking about three.