Team Valor International's 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom will start for the first time since his thrilling runner-up finish in the Nov. 3 Breeders' Cup Mile when he takes on top turf contender Point of Entry and four others in the $300,000 Kitten's Joy Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap on Feb. 9.
The 1 1/8-mile test has drawn a field of six, with highweighted Point of Entry breaking from post two while carrying 123 including jockey John Velazquez, and Animal Kingdom departing from the six hole under Joel Rosario and 121 pounds.
Film Making, Salto, Unbridled Command, and Where's the Baby form the brave quartet willing to take on two of the nation's finest runners in the Turf Handicap, which is scheduled as race eight with an approximate post time of 4:01 p.m. EST. The card features four graded stakes including the Donn Handicap.
This outing at Gulfstream Park will be Animal Kingdom's final start in the United States. If all goes according to plan, the 5-year-old son of Leroidesanimaux begins a journey that will take him first to the $10 million Dubai World Cup on March 30, then to Royal Ascot in England in June, and finally to retirement in Australia at Arrowfield Stud, which recently purchased a majority interest in his breeding rights.
"We've sold 75 percent of him, and we kept 25," said Barry Irwin, president and CEO of Team Valor. "It was not easy for us to do it because, to us, the horse still hasn't shown what he can do. The whole package hasn't been opened. When he was a 3-year-old, even though he won the Derby, he did so with power. He didn't do so with speed or turn of foot. Last year, when he made that start in the Breeders' Cup, he showed a turn of foot we had never seen before.
"We think he could be a monster, so it was difficult to sell him, knowing the package hasn't been fully opened yet," Irwin continued of the Team Valor homebred. "On one hand, it's bittersweet because we took some money off the table to ensure he'd have his best chance at stud. But on the other hand we think there's still a lot more there and I hope we get to see it before he's retired."
Animal Kingdom's racing schedule has been interrupted by two layoffs of eight months-plus due to injury after the 2011 Triple Crown campaign, resulting in just two outings since his only off-the-board finish, sixth after trouble at the start of the Belmont Stakes on June 11, 2011 (he ran second to Shackleford by half a length in the grade I Preakness).
"I've said it before and I'll say it now: He's probably the best horse I'll ever train," Motion said. "It's going to be hard to have a horse that I can say is better than him, so not being able to run for a certain amount of time has been frustrating. I would have loved to have seen him be able to go out there and prove over and over again how great he is. But because he's been somewhat fragile, it's been kind of one race at a time."
Motion and Team Valor made a bold move bringing Animal Kingdom back from the second long layoff in the $2 million Breeders' Cup Mile at Santa Anita Park, and although it was not a triumphant return marred by traffic troubles for the Derby winner, Animal Kingdom's runner-up finish 1 1/2 lengths behind Wise Dan, who subsequently was named 2012 Horse of the Year, was a remarkable credit to Motion's well-respected horsemanship.
"The main thing is we never had a hiccup after getting started, and he couldn't have afforded a hiccup " Motion said. "It's only a sign of how good he is."
And Animal Kingdom will need to be just that good to prevail in the Turf Handicap against the likes of Point of Entry, winner of three straight grade I stakes before he missed by half a length in the Nov. 3 Breeders' Cup Turf, and Unbridled Command, the Hollywood Derby winner who seeks his sixth straight victory for owner Lewis Lakin.
Point of Entry, Phipps Stable's 5-year-old homebred by Dynaformer, took the Man o' War Stakes, Sword Dancer Invitational, and the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational before missing to Little Mike in the Breeders' Cup Turf when he encountered traffic trouble with a late run up the rail.
"I'm looking forward to it," trainer Shug McGaughey said of the dust-up between Point of Entry and Animal Kingdom. "This is not a 'win at all risk' type of situation. It's only the first of February. Our main objective is the Breeders' Cup [Turf] next fall. How I get him there, we'll see, but so far, so good."
Point of Entry turned in his final serious preparations for the Turf Handicap on Feb. 3, going four furlongs in :47 2/5 at Payson Park Training Center. Animal Kingdom made his final move Feb. 4, five furlongs on the turf at Palm Meadows in 1:02.02.
Of the other contenders, only Unbridled Command appears to poise a legitimate threat. The 4-year-old son of Master Command notched his biggest victory in the Hollywood Derby going 1 1/4 miles on the turf at Betfair Hollywood Park on Nov. 25. He overcame 13 others that day including dead-heat Travers winner Golden Ticket, Motion trainee Lucky Chappy, and Pennsylvania Derby winner Handsome Mike. The New York-bred won the 1 1/16-mile McMahon of Saratoga Mohawk Stakes at Belmont Park by 6 3/4 lengths one start prior, and took the Saranac Stakes going 1 1/8 miles at Saratoga Race Course before that.
Salto, an Irish-bred son of Pivotal who races for trainer Todd Pletcher and Wertheimer and Frere, was third in the El Prado Stakes going a mile on the Gulfstream lawn Dec. 22. Film Making is a son of Storm Cat who was third by a head in a Jan. 12 allowance event at Gulfstream and has not won since breaking his maiden at Tampa Bay Downs in December of 2010; this is his stakes debut. Where's the Baby, by Castledale, won a Gulfstream allowance on the dirt two starts back, but was last of nine in a 1 1/16-mile turf allowance Jan. 5.