The pivotal Preakness

The Kentucky Derby may be "America's Race," a franchise, a brand, inspiration of parties in places far from Louisville, office pools and the attention of people who have no other interest in the sport. Its history and lore occupy a separate realm. Winning the Derby is the sport's ultimate fantasy shared by everyone who has ever bred, owned or trained a thoroughbred. It is the Preakness, however, that is central to the Triple Crown, the most important race in the annual trilogy.

The Preakness may be run at a track that is a living preview of racing in the post-nuclear era in a history-rich state where the sport has for years been down at the heels and running on fumes, but Pimlico is the narrow gateway to the Triple Crown. One 3-year-old leaves Churchill Downs every spring with an opportunity to sweep the most rarely won title in American sport, but Baltimore is where the dream is often dashed. Charm City can be cruel.

Though it is a monument to blight, Pimlico is where the Triple Crown's drama takes shape and form. The Preakness is the race that either gives the Belmont Stakes potentially historic importance or relegates the 12-furlong finale to a status something much less than classic.

With the exception of Big Brown in 2008, the Derby winners of recent years have fulfilled expectations and fallen short at Pimlico. It takes a top-class horse to survive Baltimore a fortnight after having succeeded in the 20-horse stampede in Louisville. The question at hand: Is Animal Kingdom such a horse? There is no question that the sport, suffering a storm of blows to its image, a dearth of transcendent 3-year-old heroes and wandering an uncertain road to its future, sorely needs a Derby winner who rises to the occasion on Saturday.

Despite his dismissal by many handicappers and analysts, Animal Kingdom was an interesting horse before the Derby. Though he had not been in competition since winning the Spiral Stakes in late March at Turfway Park, raced only twice as a 3-year-old and established no form on dirt, his sire, the Brazilian import Leroidesanimaux, was a top-class middle-distance type on grass while in the hands of the late Bobby Frankel, his German-bred dam suggested a bottom-line capacity to stay 10 furlongs and he had won two of four starts while finishing second in a pair of troubled efforts.

There was little to learn from a moderate work in the dirt at Churchill Downs a week before the Derby, but Animal Kingdom was reportedly impressive in a pair of training moves over the Keeneland Polytrack in April. Those willing to make the leap of faith backed what was clearly the best animal among the 19 starters in the Derby and have enjoyed the spoils of a memorable score.

Despite being compromised by the surprising lack of pace in the Derby, Animal Kingdom put up what was the strongest individual effort by a 3-year-old to this point of the season, one that suggests strongly that he is progressing at a critical point. Trainer Graham Motion, who retreated with the Derby winner to the idyllic Fair Hill training center in rural Maryland, has been encouraged by the long-bodied, rangy colt's post-Derby recovery. Animal Kingdom may have been a longshot in Louisville, but the strength of his performance in the Derby answered every question loudly and in the affirmative. Although dissimilar in type and running style, Animal Kingdom is arguably the most impressive Derby winner since Big Brown.

In one sense, Animal Kingdom's profile is similar to several of the most recent Derby winners who have repeated at Pimlico. Of the last seven, going back to Silver Charm in 1997, only Big Brown and Smarty Jones were favored in the Derby. War Emblem was more than 20-1 in the 2002 Derby, Funny Cide was almost 13-1 a year later and Charismatic was more than 31-1 in 1999. Typically, though Empire Maker was clearly favored in 2003, such horses emerge in years, like this, in which the 3-year-old crop appears prior to the Derby to have no clear standout. The table may be set for Animal Kingdom.

With meddling politicians nipping at its heels, threatening to impose unwelcome, uninformed legislation on a sport unable or unwilling to address its longstanding, diverse and problematic medication policies, steadily waning economic indicators and competition for the gambling dollar on every front, never has racing so badly needed the positive attention that accompanies a Triple Crown bid or, better still, the first Triple Crown winner since 1978.

It would be premature to anoint Animal Kingdom at this point, but he is better equipped than other recent winners of the Derby to take the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Animal Kingdom has the physical tools, a running style suited to both remaining legs of the Triple Crown established quality and versatility unclear before the Derby and leaves the impression that we have not seen his best.

"He just seems in really good form," Motion, not a slave to hyperbole, said after Animal Kingdom galloped at Fair Hill on Sunday. "He certainly hasn't missed a meal and has barely missed any feed since he ran. He seems very content. He was strong in his gallop today. He looks well. Knock on wood; I couldn't be happier."

At the moment, the Preakness is the most important race of the year. When they go to the post at Pimlico on Saturday, the sport and its fans will draw a collective breath and hold it until a horse reaches the wire in front.

From here, it appears that Animal Kingdom may be the one.

Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award, and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He also has been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul can be contacted at pmoran1686@aol.com.