Every year my Kentucky Derby day ends roughly the same way: A couple hours of chasing down owners, trainers, jockeys and various others connected to the race and its winner, followed by a 28-minute walk from Churchill Downs back to my hotel to write the story of the race for SI. (My personal best on this walk is 26 minutes, but there can still be crowds, which slow it down; occasionally it's raining, which can be hell on a cheap suit.)
Two things are usually ping-ponging around my head as I'm making this walk. One, what to write for the magazine, because usually there's far more material available than space, and there's a certain big-picture process that has to be undertaken because the magazine won't be available for three days and my turf-writing brethren are writing immediately. Two, what to make of the winning horse. (I'm also wondering if room service will be available, so technically that's three.)
For instance, when Big Brown won the Derby out of the No. 20 post in 2008 (after a similarly remarkable run in the Florida Derby), it was pretty obvious we were looking at a serious horse. A year later, when Calvin Borel steered Mine That Bird to a stunning victory on a rock hard and blazing fast rail, I felt like he might not win another race. He didn't, although he ran much better in both the Preakness and the Belmont than anyone expected. Last year Super Saver looked like a sloppy track fluke. He also never won another race.
Animal Kingdom's victory on Saturday was what handicappers call "visually impressive." That means he looked good doing it, finished while still running fast and left most of the field far behind. Does that mean he can win the Preakness and possibly end the 32-year Triple Crown drought? My answer is maybe. Too soon to say yes, but unlike Mine That Bird and Super Saver, too soon to say no. Some lingering thoughts that play into that evolving equation:
Eight days before the Derby, I met up with Graham Motion at his barn on the Churchill Downs backstretch. At the time, he had two horses running in the Derby: Toby's Corner and Animal Kingdom. Toby's Corner clearly had the goods after a rough-and-tumble loss in the Gotham and then a driving win in the Wood Memorial.
Motion, an Englishman who came to the U.S. at age 16, is different from many successful trainers who have flourished in the last quarter century in American racing. He is not in a hurry. His drug record is clean. He likes to let horses be horses, a staple of the European training system. And he is generally immune to Derby fever. Twice he had brought horses to Churchill and twice they had run poorly, the last in 2009.
"I have not had great Derby races," Motion said when I talked to him on April 29. "I kind of made a promise to myself that I wouldn't do this again unless I belonged. I did not want to come here for the wrong reasons.''
Toby's Corner was a no-brainer. Animal Kingdom was a tougher call.
"He's a very impressive horse,'' Motion told me on that day. Yet Animal Kingdom had run only four races, and none on dirt, which, of course, is the surface on which the Triple Crown races are run. Wayne Catalano had trained him in 2010 and then Barry Irwin, the CEO of owning partnership Team Valor International, had switched all his horses to Motion for 2011.
In early March, Animal Kingdom broke poorly and rallied to finish second in a turf race in Florida. It was just his third lifetime start. He needed at least one more race -- and a lot more money, because Derby entry is limited to the top 20 horses in graded stakes earnings -- to get to Churchill. Irwin and Motion entered him in the Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes on March 26 at Turfway Park in Northern Kentucky, which has a synthetic racing surface. It was a $500,000 race with a modest field and Animal Kingdom won.
The Derby was six weeks away. Animal Kingdom would almost surely have enough money to make the field. Irwin wanted to run him in the Blue Grass Stakes, but Motion didn't want another race. Instead, he worked him twice on Keeneland's synthetic surface and, most crucially, on Churchill Downs's dirt, on April 30. "He needs to have a good work here," said Motion. The work went well -- 1:13 for six furlongs -- and horsemen like Bob Baffert were impressed with Animal Kingdom's form on the dirt.
"He's one of the horses with a chance to win the race,'' Baffert said three days before the Derby.
But it must be said: Motion did not rush. He had a lightly-raced horse, but he did not send him into the Blue Grass, which would have made him run three races in six weeks (and four in eight weeks with the Preakness and five in 11 weeks with the Belmont).
And now he's a relatively fresh horse heading to Baltimore.
This is what happens every year: Owners, trainers, jockeys, handicappers, turf writers and the public look at the Derby field and conclude that the combination of speed horses, a huge field and jockey panic will ensure a fast early pace. This is usually accurate.
This year looked to be no exception. There were a number of quick-footed horses in the race: Shackleford, Comma to the Top, Soldat and Pants On Fire, to name just four.
But instead, the pace went historically slow. Shackleford got an easy lead in fractions of 23.24 for a 1/4, 48.63 for a hale and 1:13.40 for the 3/4. As I tweeted on Sunday, that six-furlong split was the slowest since 1947.
The last "slow'' Derby had been War Emblem's wire-to-wire win in 2002 and he went 1:11.75, before drawing off to win by four. This year they not only went historically slow to the 3/4, but the half-mile between the first quarter and six furlongs was covered in 50.16 seconds, which is crawling.
What does this tell us?
First, it tells us that the horses near the lead during those slow fractions should have been able to threaten or win the Derby. But they did not. Shackleford (first at 3/4) held on for a staggering fourth. Comma to the Top (second at 3/4) finished last. Decisive Moment (third at 3/4), backed up to 14th. Pants On Fire (fourth at 3/4) finished ninth. Only Nehro -- who was fifth at the six-furlong mark, made a big move on the turn and stayed for second -- flattered himself by running close to the front. The others were exposed.
As for Animal Kingdom, the slow pace allowed jockey John Velazquez to run relaxed and relatively close to the pace. It was an unusual Derby in that few horses encountered traffic problems, but Animal Kingdom's trip was particularly sweet. Velazquez was chilly until sending AK between horses on the turn and then swinging outside.
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:
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.