By Mark Beech
May 07, 2011

Five things we learned from a wild and wide-open Kentucky Derby ...

1. The 2011 Derby was anybody's race, and anybody won it. This should come as no surprise. Talented colts began dropping out of the 3-year-old division before the spring even began (Jaycito, Premiere Pegasus) and kept falling away right into Derby week itself (Toby's Corner, Uncle Mo). By the time the Call to the Post sounded at Churchill Downs on Saturday, the Derby field was one of the least accomplished in recent memory, if not in more than a generation. Race winner Animal Kingdom came to Louisville as something of an unknown quantity, with four career starts and no victories on dirt. How would he handle the dirt surface at Churchill? Nobody had any idea -- which is why he paid a handsome $43.80 for the win.

GALLERY: Derby day photos

2. Animal Kingdom should not be underestimated. Because of the middling group of rivals he defeated, there may be a tendency to discount Animal Kingdom's victory. That would be a mistake. The chestnut colt has improved in each of his four career starts, the last of which was a 2 ¼-length win in the Spiral Stakes on March 23 at Turfway Park (where the main-track surface is the synthetic dirt known as Polytrack). He's modestly bred, with the pedigree of a turf runner, which in plain English means he should be able to run all day long.

But what Animal Kingdom showed in Louisville was a good bit of natural speed and a nifty turn of foot. He broke from the gate comfortably and moved through the first quarter mile without being troubled, in part because jockey John Velazquez kept him wide down the lane before settling in three-wide on the clubhouse turn. Animal Kingdom stayed where he was down the backstretch, riding in the middle of the pack and never falling too far behind, before starting his move on the turn for home. In a nifty bit of riding, Velazquez sent the colt through a narrow gap between horses before swinging him to the outside again. Animal Kingdom came off the turn for home in the middle of the track with nothing in front of him but open track, and he inhaled the leaders in a matter of strides, pulling away as he hit the wire.

Animal Kingdom has the speed and the stamina to be competitive in both of the final two races of the Triple Crown series, and he's clearly peaking at the right time. He's not an unknown quantity anymore and should be considered a major threat at the Preakness on May 21.

3. Graham Motion is a name you should know. Over the years, the Kentucky Derby has been a place where trainers who toil for most of their careers in obscurity can become household names -- D. Wayne Lukas, Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher for example. The decidedly conservative Motion may never belong in that flashy company, and that's probably OK with him. Nevertheless, he deserves to be recognized as one of the best horsemen in the game.

Motion grew up on a stud farm just 10 miles from the English racing mecca of Newmarket, which has a famous racecourse of its own. With a training operation based in Elkton, Md., he has earned a reputation as a sober, judicious strategist -- Animal Kingdom's light career workload is a testament to how cautious Motion can be with his horses. Unlike many of his peers, he insists on resting his horses when they're hurt, rather than using medication to get them to the post -- he's been described in the press as the "anti-Dutrow," a reference to flamboyant trainer Richard Dutrow, who won the 2008 Derby and Preakness with Big Brown while boasting of his reliance on equine pharmaceuticals. The proof of Motion's training acumen can be seen in his more than 1,000 career victories.

Motion's big horse for the Derby was Toby's Corner, the surprise winner of last month's Wood Memorial. But the horse scratched early in the week due to an unspecified injury.

4. What happened to Robby Albarado is a glimpse into the life of a jockey. Save for a few select cases, jockeys do not sign contracts with owners or trainers. They are independent contractors and live race to race. The good riders are in great demand and get lots of mounts; the bad riders get whatever is left over. A jockey is only as good as his last race. Lose a couple of starts, or even just one, and you can get fired. Same thing if you get hurt before the biggest race of the year.

Such is the case with Robby Albarado, one of the finest jockeys in American racing, who fell from a mount and fractured his nose at Churchill Downs on Wednesday. He took Thursday and Friday off, and that was enough for Motion and Barry Irwin, the president of the Team Valor syndicate that owns Animal Kingdom, to replace him with John Velazquez, who became available after his mount, 2-year-old champion Uncle Mo, had scratched from the Derby earlier that morning.

"It was a tough call because I really like Robby," said Irwin after the race. "But this horse has 20 partners. There's a lot invested. And it turned out to be the right thing to do."

5. Even a wide-open, undistinguished field could not diminish the Derby. The Kentucky Derby is the world's greatest horse race and has been for many years. There was no big favorite running on Saturday, and no giant gate attraction. But the weather was beautiful, and a record crowd of 164,858 showed up anyway. Quite a tribute to the most thrilling two minutes in sports.

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