Kentucky Derby Recap, Reaction and Look Forward
It was a great day at Churchill. The juleps were flowing. The hats were huge. The odds were long and the racing was intense. In a mild upset, Animal Kingdom won today's Run for the Roses. I’m no expert handicapper, but I didn’t see that coming. Neither, by the way, did a lot of those that you would call experts. I offer you my post-race thoughts and a brief look forward.
Johnny Velazquez and Animal Kingdom ran a brilliant and eye-opening race. The pair sat mid-pack for almost the entire race, boxed in it seemed on the backstretch and into the final turn. The pace was a reasonable one and set up nicely for Animal Kingdom to make a run. The problem would be whether or not a hole would open up. For a while the answer looked like no, but just before the horses hit the top of the stretch a narrow opportunity appeared (click to watch the overhead view of the race). It would be all Animal Kingdom needed. Velazquez, who took the mount following an injury to Robby Albarado, took the 20-1 shot between horses. He angled out just a bit and for the first time in the race found an open lane to run into. As Nehro caught the front running Shackleford, Animal Kingdom found his stride. Here’s where the magic happened: Animal Kingdom made a marvelous stretch run, picking off horses and showing little effort to do it. It wasn’t until well into the front stretch that Velazquez really started to ask for something from his horse, just then taking out the whip. The horse responded insanely well, lurching forward and beginning a powerful run that would easily clear the competition.
It’s really an eye-opening win. Animal Kingdom was a horse that no one really knew a lot about. He’d only run four races in his career and only one stakes race – a grade three. He’s a European horse who had never before run on dirt. No one was sure what to make his chances, including his principal owner Barry Irwin, who said after the race that he “couldn’t see” the horse winning. The trainer seemed a little more confident, having said that he had an "amazing horse". How right he was. Turf, dirt or synthetic, it doesn’t seem to matter. That horse can run. For Animal Kingdom to be making that strong a run before even being asked by his jockey was incredible. To then run past the field when finally prompted was the stuff of champions. It really makes you wonder, how good can this horse be?
We’ll get there in a minute. Let’s first take a look at some of the horses who figured into the race – and some who were figured to figure, but didn’t. Like Archarcharch, who took an odd step and seemed to hurt himself out of the gate. He pulled up after the finish line, clearly injured. He is said to have a fracture in his leg, though the injury is not life-threatening.
The most glaring example of derby disappointment is Dialed In. He was the favorite coming in, even before the scratch of Uncle Mo. Nothing really looked right with Dialed In. Clearly the plan was to drift to the back of the field and charge late, but at such a moderate pace, the field simply ran away from him too easily for he to have been at his best. He seemed bothered throughout the race and when called upon late simply didn’t have enough. It’ll be interesting to see if he runs at Pimlico and if the strategy changes there.
Another horse that was expected to give more was Midnight Interlude. This is one of the most frustrating things about horse racing. You can handicap all you want, but sometimes a horse just doesn’t have it. Any given Sunday any football team can win? Well, any given race day any horse can lose. Midnight Interlude seemed poised all race, sitting on the outside in sixth or seventh place with room to run in front of him. It looked like jockey Victor Espinoza seemed to sense that his horse wasn’t there. He asked for him to run on the backstretch with no response and went to the whip early in the second turn with the same results. A puzzling race for a horse that was sure to be in the mix.
The positive runs came from horses like Santiva, who rallied as an over 30-1 long-shot to finish sixth in the derby. Nehro, who was predicted to have a strong race, did just that. He got to the lead and looked the best horse, but just didn’t have enough to beat the charging Animal Kingdom. Mucho Macho Man turned up a great performance. The big, strong colt was making a furious run down the stretch and just ran out of time. If this was the Belmont that Macho Man would almost certainly have caught and passed Animal Kingdom. To me, however, the most impressive run of the race came from a horse that received almost no attention pre-race…except from the Original Gangster. Ice-T’s pick to win the derby, Master Of Hounds, can be seen charging furiously down the stretch, taking home a surprising fifth place finish. Garret Gomez had a lot of horse under him and gave him a great ride. I’m left to wonder, had he made his move a little bit earlier would we be talking about how this 16-1 shot took the roses?
It’ll be a very interesting two weeks leading up to the next leg of the Triple Crown. I’ll be intrigued to find out which horses will challenge Animal Kingdom in the Preakness, a horse that Jerry Bailey has already said will love the track at Pimlico. Will Uncle Mo run? Will Dialed In run and change strategy? Will Shackleford make the trip to Maryland? Here’s a horse that ran out front for the bulk of the derby and may have won a race a 16th of a mile shorter – like the Preakness. It’ll certainly be a great afternoon in Baltimore. The perfect scenario for me would be Animal Kingdom taking the Preakness then going to Belmont to face a healthy Uncle Mo and the late charges of the Mucho Macho Man and Master Of Hounds – each of whom could have nipped the winner of the roses at the wire with an extra furlong.
But I’m getting way ahead of myself. Let’s take tonight and celebrate an excellent horse. A horse that in five career starts has now finished second, first, second, first and first - and looked an incredibly strong animal in today’s race. Is it possible that we’re watching the next great name in racing? I don’t know. That’s for the experts and these next two races to decide. But I certainly hope so. The sport is so craving the type of star that today’s performance says this horse could be. I don't want to get too crazy, so celebrate with the roses tonight, but I for one can’t wait to get to Pimlico and see if this horse can take home the black-eyed Susans and set up a dramatic Belmont in the first week in June. Congratulations Animal Kingdom, Johnny Velazquez and Team Valor.