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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

The Derby gives. The Derby takes. That is the soul of America's greatest horse race. One owner endorses the money spent to win roses while others bemoan the money wasted. One trainer praises the resilient thoroughbred who was first past the wire while others mourn the fragile horses who did not. One jockey stands tall, others curse defeat. It is a cruel spectacle, with joy for few and pain for many. Sometimes people feel them both.

So it was, near sunset last Saturday in Louisville, that trainer Graham Motion, an Englishman who moved to the U.S. at 16 and has spent his life in the sport, walked across a Churchill Downs courtyard both elated at victory and shaken at the path he took to achieve it. His 14-year-old daughter, Jane, was on one side and a police officer on the other as Motion stepped over discarded beer cans on the way from the winner's press conference to the winner's party. It had been a long week, with difficult decisions that even a Derby win couldn't erase. "Ultimately," he said, "I get caught up in the emotion of things."

Less than 60 minutes earlier, Animal Kingdom, a majestic 3-year-old colt, had won the 137th Kentucky Derby with a driving 2¾-length victory under jockey John Velazquez. A record crowd of 164,858 had sent Animal Kingdom off at long odds of 21--1 and unleashed its annual liquefied roar as he rushed past pacesetter Shackleford and closer Nehro in the final 1/16th of a mile.

It was an appropriate conclusion to a confounding Derby season that had left the race wide open. "A toss of the coin," said Steve Asmussen, trainer of runner-up Nehro, even after it was over. "It's one of those years when the best horses might not emerge until months from now." Animal Kingdom had run only four previous races, none on a dirt surface like the Derby's and each with a different rider. His victory was a product of Motion's skilled conditioning work and Velazquez's smart ride, at first patient—"I just tried to let him run freely," he said—then bravely aggressive as he darted between Santiva and Soldat in the the final turn before swinging outside in the stretch. Animal Kingdom now moves on to the Preakness on May 21 in Baltimore, the second step toward ending racing's 32-year Triple Crown drought and the first toward proving himself more than a Derby Day wonder. His win was the last twist in a weeklong series of dramas that sent ripples through the Derby field and its participants, altering the complexion of the race with each passing day.

On the Monday of race week, owner and breeder Dianne Cotter was traveling with her family from Gainesville, Fla., to Louisville to watch Cotter's 3-year-old colt, Toby's Corner. That horse, also trained by Motion, had won the April 9 Wood Memorial, a key Derby prep at New York's Aqueduct Racetrack, and loomed as a potential favorite in Kentucky after winter training that included, by weather-induced necessity, gallops in deep, powdery snow.

The Cotters had crossed into South Carolina when Diane's cellphone rang. It was Motion. "He said, 'We have a problem,'" recalls Cotter. Toby had worked on Sunday at the Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, Md., and on Monday he'd shown lameness in his left rear leg. It was no better on Tuesday, and after a round of tests he was scratched. "It was heart-wrenching," says Cotter, who'd bred Toby's sire, Bellamy Road, the beaten favorite in the 2005 Run for the Roses.

"It was not a call you ever want to make," says Motion. He now had just one horse in the Derby, Animal Kingdom, perceived by oddsmakers to be the lesser of his entries.

Then, on a cool, windy Wednesday afternoon, veteran rider Robby Albarado, 37, who'd been named to ride Animal Kingdom, was thrown and stepped on during the post parade before a $10,000 maiden claiming race. He was taken to the hospital with a broken nose and cuts and bruises on his face, and he wouldn't ride in any other races on Wednesday, Thursday or Friday. Agents for jockeys began phoning Barry Irwin, head of Team Valor International, the partnership group that owns Animal Kingdom. "At least seven guys called us when Robby went down," says Irwin. "We told them to sit tight."

This was in part because another miniseries had been unfolding on the backstretch. Uncle Mo, the impressive winner of the Breeders' Cup juvenile race at Churchill Downs last November and the 2-year-old champion, had been struggling to sustain his form as a 3-year-old. After finishing third in the Wood Memorial, he was diagnosed with a gastrointestinal inflammation. Medication improved Mo's condition, but when he was weaned off the drugs during Derby week, he regressed. On Friday morning trainer Todd Pletcher and owner Mike Repole scratched him.

Uncle Mo's regular rider is Velazquez, 39, and the colt's illness extended a startling run of bad luck for the jock. Two years ago he was the regular rider on potential Derby favorite Quality Road, who was scratched five days before the race with a hoof injury. A year ago he was on presumptive heavy favorite Eskendereya, who was scratched six days before the Derby. Now again it appeared Velazquez would have no mount.

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