A world of possibilities for Animal Kingdom

February, 9, 2013
02/09/13
1:00
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It's rather unusual to find a past Kentucky Derby winner racing in early February -- especially on turf.

Yet Animal Kingdom is anything but your run of the mill Run for the Roses winner. In fact, he might be as versatile a runner as the sport as ever seen.

Unlike prototypical Kentucky Derby winners who later race primarily on dirt in races like the Breeders' Cup Classic or Jockey Club Gold Cup -- if they race into the fall and beyond -- Animal Kingdom is cut from a different mold.

Aside from a win on dirt in the 2011 Kentucky Derby, he's a graded stakes winner on a synthetic surface and an impressive runner-up on turf to 2012 Horse of the Year Wise Dan in the Breeders' Cup Mile.

Animal Kingdom is anything but your run of the mill Run for the Roses winner. In fact, he might be as versatile a runner as the sport as ever seen.

Team Valor International's 5-year-old horse has won America's most famous race and it's hardly far-fetched to ponder the possibility that he could close out his career with wins in the world's richest race and at Europe's most famous meet.

Those last items are, of course, the Dubai World Cup in March and the Royal Ascot meet in England, and more will be known about the prospects for such lofty goals on Saturday when Animal Kingdom runs in the $300,000 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap, taking on Breeders' Cup Turf runner-up Point of Entry.

The Turf Handicap is part of an outstanding card at Gulfstream that also features the Grade 1, $500,000 Donn Handicap, the Grade 3, $150,000 GP Sprint Championship and the Grade 3, $150,000 Suwannee River, but in terms of star power it's the mile-and-an-eighth Turf Handicap that's the dazzler.

Most telling is that Point of Entry, a winner of three Grade 1's in 2012, gets second billing. Yet that's life whenever a Kentucky Derby winner shares the starting gate with you.

In an injury-riddled career, the Graham Motion-trained champion has raced only four times since the first Saturday in May 2011 and his lone win came nearly a year ago when he captured a turf allowance race at Gulfstream on Feb. 18, 2012. Yet his last start, the Breeders' Cup Mile, turned out to be one of the most heavily discussed efforts at the two-day series.

Despite running into more traffic issues than a rush-hour driver will find on a Los Angeles freeway, Animal Kingdom found a seam late in the stretch and gobbled up ground on Wise Dan, falling a length and a half shy of collaring the eventual Horse of the Year.

It's that performance which has sparked high hopes for a stellar 2013 that starts like 2012 with a turf race at Gulfstream.

"The big picture is getting him to Dubai," Motion said. "This race is an important stepping stone. Believe me, he's going to be ready to run, and it's not going to be easy. But the big picture is getting him to Dubai. It's always been our goal to get there."

If all goes well, after Dubai Animal Kingdom's career could come to a fitting end with an appearance at regal Royal Ascot.

"You just hope you get to each one," Motion said. "The trip to Ascot, if we could do that, would be the icing on the cake. To do that would mean he ran very well in Dubai. Otherwise, we wouldn't do that. To win the Derby and take the horse to Royal Ascot, how much better does it get than that?"

Not much, though coming across a horse that can do as much in as many different places as Animal Kingdom is pretty rare, too.

• Bob Ehalt grew up a few furlongs from Belmont Park and has followed horse racing as a fan, turf writer or owner since 1971.
• Has won three Associated Press Sports Editors awards and was the recipient of the '09 Breeders' Cup media award for outstanding social media.

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