Amid deluge of attention, Animal Kingdom poised to take Preakness
After winning Kentucky Derby, Animal Kingdom looks primed to win Preakness
He skipped the Blue Grass Stakes, so he should be a well-rested horse
Preakness field looks weak; only Dialed In and Dance City present real challenge
ELKTON, Md. -- Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom has spent the last 11 days at home in a place called Fair Hill, which sounds like a '90s Hugh Grant movie (a bad one, just to be clear). But Fair Hill is actually a sensational place for a horse, as thoroughbred trainers like to say, to be a horse, instead of an object of pari-mutuel angst and media scrutiny, which is what the stately beasts become as soon as they are unloaded from a van and placed into a stakes barn somewhere.
Fair Hill is 60 miles northeast of Baltimore, not far from Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania or I-95. It has hillsides that rise and fall across 5,700 acres dotted with maples and pines. It is the kind of place where a man could sit and write poetry. (It is also the kind of place where a journalist, having driven from the Baltimore suburbs while drinking buckets of hot tea, could emerge straight from his car and step into the woods for some relief. Not saying that actually happened, but it's a practical alternative for anyone in that situation.)
Here is where trainer Graham Motion, who will turn 47 on the day after Saturday's 136th running of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in North Baltimore, trains all of his horses, more than 100 of them. He lives a mile away in a house with his wife, Anita, who runs the business side of Herringswell Stables, and their two children. Motion comes to work every morning at 5:30 a.m. and doesn't leave until every horse has been attended to by him or his staff and every human client has been dealt with.
That routine was changed abruptly when Animal Kingdom won the Derby, and thus became the most (the only?) famous racehorse in America. (Actually, Secretariat, who hasn't run a race in 38 years, might still be the most famous but that's another discussion altogether.) And AK didn't just win the Derby, as Motion said on Wednesday morning, "He really did it quite easily.'' He galloped along behind a historically slow pace and then drew away in the stretch to win by 2 3/4 lengths despite minimal urging from first-time rider John Velazquez.
Animal Kingdom's only real misstep was the vague disinterest he demonstrated after making the lead inside the eighth pole at Churchill Downs, not so much from fatigue, but from immaturity at the roar of 160,000-plus fans. Motion demonstrates this absent-mindedness by flapping his hands at ear level. "It's understandable in that environment,'' he says.
Then came the change, rolling in like a blizzard. One minute Animal Kingdom is a 20-1 shot in the 19-horse Kentucky Derby field, a not-entirely-unpopular choice, but still relatively anonymous. And then suddenly he is the temporary savior of horse racing. Him. His trainer. His ownership (a partnership headed by the aggressively iconoclastic 68-year-old Barry Irwin). His jockey. But mostly his trainer, who is out front every day.
This role escalates for two weeks as the Preakness approaches. There are dozens of storylines leading into the Kentucky Derby, but there is really only one in the Preakness: Can the Derby winner win again and then try for the Triple Crown? (There are exceptions: When filly Rachel Alexandra ran the Preakness in 2009 that was bigger than Derby winner Mine That Bird's rollback.)
The effect of this sudden interest bottleneck is that people like Motion (mostly) and Irwin have enormous attention suddenly thrust upon them. There are few occasions like it in sports. Maybe the NCAA basketball upstart that wins a game or two or three in the tournament when nothing was known or expected of them (Hello, VCU). Maybe an Olympian like Rulon Gardner who toils in practice for years while no one watches (or cares) and then beats an unbeatable Russian and suddenly everybody cares.
The Preakness thing, it's just like that.