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Sunday, May 8, 2011

Animal Kingdom wins 137th Kentucky Derby

Sunday, May 8, 2011

LOUISVILLE ? Long shot Animal Kingdom, a lightly-raced colt who had never competed on dirt, triumphed in the most prestigious dirt race of all Saturday when he beat Nehro by 2 3/4 lengths in the 137th Kentucky Derby.

  • Veteran jockey John Velazquez earned his first Kentucky Derby win in 13 tries by getting the ride aboard Animal Kingdom.

    By Michael Conroy, AP

    Veteran jockey John Velazquez earned his first Kentucky Derby win in 13 tries by getting the ride aboard Animal Kingdom.

By Michael Conroy, AP

Veteran jockey John Velazquez earned his first Kentucky Derby win in 13 tries by getting the ride aboard Animal Kingdom.

"This game is a tough game. You can get the rug pulled out from under you any day," said trainer Graham Motion. "There aren't many fairy tale endings, but this is one of them."

For Motion and victorious jockey John Velazquez, the storybook ending in front of a record crowd of 164,858 came after each had encountered great adversity. When Motion flew to Churchill Downs last Tuesday, he left behind what many viewed as his top Derby hope when Toby's Corner was unable to ship here due to injury.

Throughout the winter and into the spring, Velazquez thought he was sitting in the catbird's seat with 2-year-old champion Uncle Mo. But then Uncle Mo, who had dominated his first four starts by a combined 27 lengths before bowing to Toby's Corner in the Wood Memorial on April 9, was scratched with an illness on Friday. That briefly left Velazquez without a mount until it was decided that he should be given an opportunity aboard Animal Kingdom.

Scheduled rider Robby Albarado had been dumped to the track head-first during a post parade last Wednesday. Although he was adamant that he would be well enough to ride in the Derby, the connections were so uncomfortable with the situation that they made the move to Velazquez, a top rider who had gone 0-for-12 in the Run for the Roses.

"Things happen for a reason," Velazquez said. "I guess when it's meant to be for you, it's meant to be for you, no matter what."

Animal Kingdom is the first champion to make his dirt debut in the Derby. He had competed three times on synthetic surfaces and once on grass. He defied convention in other ways as well.

His four career starts were the fewest for a Derby winner since Exterminator in 1918. The six-week gap between his 2 3/4-length victory in the Grade 3 Spiral Stakes — his only test against stakes company — and the 1 1/4-mile Run for the Roses marked the longest layoff since Needles in 1956.

"When you have a horse of this caliber," said Motion, "they overcome a lot."

Animal Kingdom's resume in winning twice with two second-place finishes on behalf of Team Valor International left plenty of room for doubt. The son of Leroidesanimaux returned $43.80 for a $2 win wager in what had been viewed as a wildly unpredictable edition of the 1 1/4-mile classic. A series of injuries and ailments had caused top contenders to fall by the wayside before they even reached the starting gate.

Mucho Macho Man ran a solid third for Kathy Ritvo, a heart transplant recipient less than three years ago who joined Kathleen O'Connell in attempting to become the first female trainer to win the Derby.

Ritvo already found herself looking ahead to the May 21 Preakness, the second leg of the Triple Crown, at Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course.

"He's only going to get better. He's only a June 15 foal," she said. "He'll come back hopefully in a couple of weeks if he comes back good and we're ready to go."

O'Connell's Watch Me Go had his chances hurt when he drew post 20. With Uncle Mo's scratch, he finished 18th in a field of 19.

Rosie Napravnik, bidding to become the first female rider to bring home the roses, had Pants on Fire forwardly placed as planned. They faded to ninth, however, one position behind favored Dialed In.

"He was in the back of the pack," said trainer Nick Zito of Dialed In. "He was dead last and they just never came back."

The high injury rate that marked the prep races continued in the Derby. Archarcharch (15th) was vanned off with a fracture in his left front leg that was not viewed as life-threatening. Last-place Comma to the Top chipped a bone in his left front ankle.

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