FAIR HILL, Md. -- It isn't that Animal Kingdom can't handle crowds and chaos. By winning the 137th Kentucky Derby amid all its sound and fury, the colt surely demonstrated certain degrees of resilience and adaptability.
But being babied, it seems, doesn't hurt, either. Having retreated into the solitude of the Fair Hill training center for the last week while stabled in the palatial barn that Team Valor International owns on these massive grounds, Animal Kingdom has flourished amid the tranquil setting. On a wet, raw Tuesday morning, the Derby winner went through his training paces with an encouraging balance of ease and eagerness, galloping nearly two miles while preparing for his next start Saturday in the $1 million Preakness at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.
Animal Kingdom, a 20-1 winner of the May 7 Derby, figures as a solid favorite for the Preakness - especially after it was announced Tuesday morning by owner Ahmed Zayat that Nehro, the Derby runner-up who looked like the chief opposition in the Preakness, will skip the race to await the third leg of the Triple Crown, the June 11 Belmont Stakes. Even with Nehro out, a full field of 14 3-year-olds was expected when Preakness entries were taken and drawn Wednesday.
Tuesday, trainer Graham Motion chose to train Animal Kingdom over the seven-furlong Tapeta synthetic surface instead of the one-mile dirt surface, which had been turned to a sea of mud by intermittent rain. It was not a choice that much mattered, according to Irwin.
"[Monday] he went in the mud, and it was probably his best day of training since the Derby," said Irwin. "It was wet, and his interest was piqued. He absolutely loved it. I'm really starting to wonder what it is this horse doesn't like and what he can't do."
It was less than two months ago that Irwin was saying he "couldn't separate" his two Derby prospects, Animal Kingdom and Crimson China. On March 26 at Turfway Park in northern Kentucky, Crimson China ran second in the Rushaway Stakes. A half-hour later, Animal Kingdom won the showcase race, the Vinery Spiral, his last start before capturing the Derby at Churchill Downs by 2 3/4 lengths under John Velazquez. Irwin still wasn't completely convinced that Animal Kingdom was superior.
Animal Kingdom "only did what he had to do for the longest time," Irwin said as the colt was being prepared for his daily bath following the Tuesday training session. "I think it was over the winter, though, that things really started to sink in. Obviously he's come a long way in a short time."
Since shipping from Churchill, starting with an easy jog in his first morning at Fair Hill on May 11, Animal Kingdom has gradually eased into longer, stronger gallops under exercise rider David Nava. With assistant Dave Rock escorting them aboard a stable pony, the routine consists of a long walk to the training track from the barn, followed by a jog of a half-mile or so, followed by about 1 3/4 miles of galloping, then the long walk back home.
By the end of the Tuesday gallop, Animal Kingdom was going quite aggressively. "He was nearly 'two-minute-licking' out there," noted Irwin. "He'll do the same thing every morning through Friday. We're not breezing him. Whether we ship to Pimlico later that day or just wait until early Saturday, we're still thinking that over."
All Preakness runners must be on the grounds by 7 a.m. Eastern on Saturday. The drive from Fair Hill - which is located in a rural corner of northeastern Maryland near the Pennsylvania and Delaware borders - to Pimlico takes a little more than an hour, and Irwin said if Animal Kingdom is shipped Saturday, "we'd have him leave by 5."
Meanwhile, the decision to skip the Preakness with Nehro was "a very hard decision, but I wanted to err on the side of caution," said Zayat. "He couldn't look any better. His work on Monday [at Churchill] was absolutely awesome. I'm just concerned about him having four hard races in eight weeks, even if, outwardly, he doesn't appear to be showing it."
Nehro, trained by Steve Asmussen, ran second in the March 26 Louisiana Derby and second in the April 16 Arkansas Derby before finishing ahead of all but Animal Kingdom in the Kentucky Derby.
Second choice in the Preakness now figures to be either Mucho Macho Man, third in the Derby, or Dialed In, eighth as the 5-1 Derby favorite. Mucho Macho Man, trained by Kathy Ritvo, breezed Tuesday morning at Belmont Park under regular rider Rajiv Maragh, going a half-mile in 49.21 seconds over a sloppy and sealed surface.
"He went unbelievable," said Ritvo.
Mucho Macho Man was scheduled to van Wednesday morning to Pimlico. Another impending arrival from Belmont is longshot Isn't He Perfect, who makes the Preakness field with the defection of Nehro. The inclusion of Isn't He Perfect would leave only Saratoga Red, trained by D. Wayne Lukas, out of the race.
At Pimlico, it seemed the most noticeable activity Tuesday came not from the only two Preakness candidates in the stable area - Concealed Identity and Norman Asbjornson - but from the bustling NBC Sports production workers setting up their equipment for the Saturday broadcast and from blaring ambulances headed to nearby Sinai Hospital.
That should all change, however, with the Wednesday arrival of two charter flights from Louisville, Ky., carrying eight of the Preakness runners: Astrology, Dance City, Dialed In, Flashpoint, Midnight Interlude, Mr. Commons, Shackleford, and Sway Away. The first of those flights was scheduled to land at Baltimore-Washington International Aiport at about 11:15 a.m. Eastern, then return to Louisville for the second load and be back by later that afternoon or early evening.
Rain was forecast for the Baltimore area through Wednesday and possibly all the way to Friday but was supposed to taper off by race day, when high temperatures will approach 80. Days of rain in Kentucky also preceded the Derby before it was run in dry conditions.