In less than a week, 5-year-old Animal Kingdom , winner of the 2011 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) and the Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airlines (UAE-I), will race at Royal Ascot.
Running a straight mile in the opening race of the five-day meet, the June 18 Queen Anne Stakes (Eng-I), the Graham Motion trainee will be the first Kentucky Derby winner to run at Ascot since Triple Crown winner Omaha’s failed bid in the 2 1/2-mile Ascot Gold Cup in 1936.
"What we are taking on is a huge challenge, and he is probably a short price for what we are doing," Motion said during a June 13 press conference featuring the connections of Animal Kingdom and other Royal Ascot participants. "When things look too good to be true, it makes me worry more. He still has to go out there, into uncharted territory. There are so many variables. The weather, distance, and doing the training here are all different."
About the decision to travel to Ascot, Motion said: "Barry (Irwin) and I had talked before about coming to Royal Ascot, but it wasn't until the horse won the Dubai World Cup that we really decided to come here. It’s admirable that John (Messara) and Barry want to do this.
"I was concerned the day we worked him at Ascot recently because there had been quite a bit of rain and it was very soft by our standards, but he seemed to handle it very well. He has handled the gallops in Lambourn and I've been coming back here every two weeks to see him. It took him two or three weeks to get adjusted, but since then he has fitted in pretty well."
Motion describes his charge as a "laid back horse, like an old steeplechaser. He's very happy at the moment and took a chunk out of my assistant Alice's finger the other day. I'll never train another one like him. The horse has had a checkered career because of his injuries, so it is all the more remarkable how he has kept his form."
"Royal Ascot is a bonus for me because I thought Dubai was his last race," Motion said. "I feel very fortunate that (Irwin and Messara) have taken on this very sporting challenge at Royal Ascot. It was the end of a long-term plan to get there."
The chance at a win at Ascot, in a race won last year by the late Sir Henry Cecil’s trainee, the undefeated Frankel, is particularly meaningful for Motion, who grew up six miles from Newmarket.
"It's tremendous to be running in a race that Frankel won last year, and Sir Henry Cecil was one of the people I admired the most when growing up in Newmarket," Motion said. "So it's quite emotional. My parents knew him, and he was one of the people who first captured my imagination to be a racehorse trainer. It's somewhat surreal to be back here with a horse pointing at Royal Ascot. It's very special and, for me, it's a dream come true."
John Velazquez will ride Animal Kingdom in the Queen Anne. "We had three choices," Motion said. "We could have stuck with Joel (Rosario), who had never ridden here before. We could have used a local jockey who had never ridden the horse, or we could have a world-class rider like Johnny, who has won at Royal Ascot.
"For me it was a no-brainer. It's no slight on Joel, but Johnny is one of the best riders in the world. The horse has been unlucky not to have had a consistent jockey through his career, but that has been more about circumstances."
Irwin, whose Team Valor International bred and owned the horse before selling a majority share to Australia’s Arrowfield Stud, said Animal Kingdom "is extremely versatile, and he's powerful.
"To be top-class like him on synthetics, dirt, and turf–well, that just doesn't happen," Irwin said. "But I think that if these horses have a good mind and constitution, then they can adapt. I was apprehensive when I saw the straight mile at Ascot, but I feel more comfortable after seeing him work at the course and on the Long Hill gallop in Lambourn."
Said Arrowfield’s Messara: "I was interested in (Animal Kingdom) before he ran in the Breeders' Cup (World Championships) last year. I thought he ran his best race in there, setting a new course record and he was a little unlucky to be beaten by the Horse of the Year in America, Wise Dan. It was an exceptional performance, and after that run talks got more advanced with Barry and his team. I'm happy we concluded the transaction."
At this point, Messara said the plan is to retire Animal Kingdom after the June 18 race, but "I never say never about these things."
A press conference with the connections of Animal Kingdom. Hear from Graham Motion, Barry Irwin, and John Messara. Learn why they chose to go with jockey John Velazquez.
Trainer Graham Motion reveals his pleasure with how Animal Kingdom is working at Lambourn training track in England.
View more of the Following Animal Kingdom series from Ascot.