Team Valor International’s homebred Animal Kingdom made a successful return after being off for nearly nine months, as he kicked away from rivals in the stretch to win an optional claimer by two lengths Feb. 18 on the Gulfstream Park turf course (VIDEO).
Last year’s Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) winner remained perfect in two starts on turf and won for the fourth time overall in his career when he defeated five horses in the 1 1/16-mile contest. The chestnut colt was using the race as a prep for the $10 million Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) next month.
After breaking slowly and trailing for a half-mile, the 4-year-son of Leroidesanimaux moved into contention down the backstretch, was kept outside of the two leaders as they moved around the turn, then took the lead approaching the top of the stretch under John Velazquez. Monument Hill was giving chase and got to within about a length by mid-stretch, but Animal Kingdom spurted away from him for a convincing comeback victory.
Last year’s champion 3-year-old male, sent off as the 3-5 favorite, completed the distance on the firm going in 1:41.72. Monument Hill and Javier Castellano finished second, two lengths in front of Bell by the Ridge.
Royal Hill set the pace for six furlongs, posting splits of :23.17, :49.44, and 1:13.12.
“They went slow enough where he just pulled me into contention all on his own," Velazquez said. "I let him do what he wanted as opposed to wrangling him back behind horses. The second I started kissing at him in the stretch he picked it right up and took off. It was a great feeling today and great to have him back. He felt as good as ever.”
Animal Kingdom was making his first start since finishing sixth as the favorite in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) last June. He came out of the race with a fractured hock, an injury that required surgery. He had been working steadily for trainer Graham Motion at Palm Meadows in South Florida for his return.
“Obviously, I would have been disappointed if he hadn’t won today, when you have a race that’s set up for you," Motion said. "But this was the best thing for us. He still had to go out there and win it. He needed a race and still has six weeks to regroup to get him to Dubai in the right way.
"This horse has come a long way since October. Nothing was more heartbreaking than to see this horse stuck in a stall a week after the Belmont. He went from being the fittest horse in the country to not being able to get out of his stall. That was tough. To see him today, back to himself, obviously I’m elated.”
Bred in Kentucky and out of the Acatenango mare Dalacia, Animal Kingdom earned $28,800 for the victory, and upped his career earnings to $1,967,500.
He paid $3.20, $2.20, and $2.10.