SI Vault
Tim Layden
May 16, 2011
A confluence of strange events brought horse and jockey together, and then Animal Kingdom surged past the leaders to win a wide-open Kentucky Derby
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May 16, 2011

Chance Meeting

A confluence of strange events brought horse and jockey together, and then Animal Kingdom surged past the leaders to win a wide-open Kentucky Derby

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Except that Irwin and Motion were watching Albarado, and when he pulled out of Friday's races—including the $1 million Kentucky Oaks—Motion and Irwin discussed replacing him with Velazquez. "It wasn't a quick decision," says Motion. "Barry and I spoke several times on Friday morning. I wasn't comfortable with it. But we needed a healthy jockey, and Barry had a lot of people to answer to." Says Irwin, "I had to push Graham on it. I had to make a decision for my team. If he had ridden on Friday, we would have stuck with him."

Motion called Albarado on Friday morning at his home in Louisville. "Graham said they were going to make a change," Albarado recalls. "I took Friday off to get well for [Derby day], but I guess that backfired on me." Albarado not only returned to the track on Saturday but also rode 16--1 filly Sassy Image to victory in the Grade I Humana Distaff Stakes—with his left eye swollen nearly shut, discoloration over much of his face and two ugly cuts. As he walked to the jockeys' quarters one race after the Derby, he said, "It's going to take some time to get over this. Very disappointing. I lost the mount on the winner of the Kentucky Derby."

His loss was Velazquez's gain. "Graham called Friday morning to talk about it," said Velazquez. "Then he called when I was in the jocks' room and told me I had the mount." Albarado, who'd been the regular rider on two-time Horse of the Year Curlin (2007 and '08), sought out Velasquez. "I told Johnny, 'You're getting a nice horse.'" Although Albarado had raced Animal Kingdom just once, last October, he worked the horse at Churchill Downs a week before the Derby. After the race several jockeys approached him to express their condolences. "I felt worse for Robby than I felt good for Johnny," said veteran rider Garrett Gomez. "And Johnny is as respected as anybody in the room."

Most handicappers perceived Animal Kingdom to be a four-legged question mark. Bred by Team Valor, he had raced just twice as a 2-year-old, both times on synthetic surfaces. He had begun his 3-year-old season with a second-place finish in a one-mile turf race at Gulfstream Park and then won the $500,000 Spiral Stakes on the synthetic surface at Turfway Park on March 26. Irwin wanted to run him in the April 13 Blue Grass Stakes. Motion disagreed, and this time he prevailed.

Motion, 46, has earned his voice as a genuine horseman. His father was an international bloodstock agent and his mother an equestrian. Shortly after Motion graduated from the Kent School in Connecticut, he went to work for trainer Jonathan Sheppard in Pennsylvania. By 1993 he'd begun training on his own. In an industry fighting a reputation for illegal drug use, Motion has never had a horse test positive for a banned medication.

Eight days before the Derby, Motion stood outside his barn at Churchill Downs and said he was still waiting for one of his prospective Derby horses to prove himself capable. One day later, on April 30, Animal Kingdom did just that, working a quick and professional six furlongs, with Albarado up, over the main track at the Downs. "He got over the dirt very well," said Motion. "He's an impressive horse." Professional clockers at Churchill similarly took note of the colt's action.

Little more was required in such an uncertain year. Not only was Uncle Mo on the fence—when he scratched on the day before the race, rival trainer Eddie Kenneally, whose Santiva would finish sixth in the Derby, said, "Finally"—but Premier Pegasus, the best horse on the West Coast, had also been pulled off the Derby trail with an injury, as had promising East Coast 3-year-old To Honor and Serve. Irwin, 68, a Southern California native and former racing journalist, jumped in with his 19 partners, who each own between 2.5% and 20% of Animal Kingdom. (Such partnerships have become popular as an entry point for racing enthusiasts with modest means.)

The horse drew the number 16 post position. Velazquez, who is based in New York and had been 0 for 12 in the Derby (his best finish was second on 55--1 shot Invisible Ink in 2001), adroitly navigated the colt into a two-wide path in the crowded first turn. While the speed-loving Shackleford kept the lead through surprisingly slow fractions of 48.63 for the half mile and 1:13.40 for three quarters—the slowest six-furlong split in 64 years—Velazquez sat dead still on Animal Kingdom.

When the pace quickened through the turn, with Nehro applying pressure to Shackleford, Velazquez punched Animal Kingdom through a small hole. "That's where I asked him for the first time," said Velazquez. Once clear of Santiva and Soldat, Velazquez angled Animal Kingdom back outside for a clear run into history.

It's possible Albarado would have done as well, but Velazquez's ride was exemplary. Velazquez publicly promised to "take care" of Albarado, which implies paying him a piece of his 10% winner's share of $141,180. Velazquez is expected to remain in the saddle for the Preakness.

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