Animal Kingdom & Toby’s Corner: 1st steps on comeback trail

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Animal Kingdom would just as soon disrupt anyone who walks by – with a mischievous bite, a curled lip, notebook grabbing, some general stall-door rattling.

“Hey, I’m here,” he seems to say. “Remember me?”

Yeah, yeah, we got it. Chill. The Kentucky Derby winner occupies the first stall next to the office/tack room at trainer Graham Motion’s Fair Hill Training Center barn. Still chestnut, still handsome, still 3, still Thoroughbred racing’s leading money earner for 2011, he watches everything from his space – awaiting an 11 a.m. daily appointment for the AquaPacer at Fair Hill Equine Therapy Center.

Of course, he’s fat. OK, big. Robust? Round? Healthy?

“He weighs thirteen-hundred pounds,” said Motion Tuesday. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a horse weigh thirteen-hundred pounds.”

To his credit, Animal Kingdom didn’t look fat – to me anyway. His massive ribcage probably accounts for all that weight, and much of that ability too. Months of inactivity will put pounds on any horse, especially a young, fit one who goes from three races in five weeks to doing nothing more than standing around. Animal Kingdom looks far stockier than he did in spring and he’s surely got weight to lose, but he might also be growing up.

Maybe the time off did him some good.

“Sure it did,” Motion said. “You wouldn’t want to do it, but it does give him a chance to grow into himself a little bit more. He’s put on a lot of weight. He’s been so good, so remarkable about everything. He’s handled it so well.”

Team Valor’s dynamic chestnut came into 2011 with a simple maiden win on his chart. He finished second on the turf at Gulfstream Park in early March, won the Vinery Spiral Stakes three weeks later at Turfway Park, then collected the Grade I Derby. The instant celebrity finished a half-length behind Shackleford in the Preakness and lost all chance when clobbered leaving the gate in the Belmont Stakes. His $1.9 million in 2011 earnings lead all Thoroughbreds as the page turns – without him – to the fall championship season.

Animal Kingdom emerged from the Belmont with an injured left hock and had surgery at New Bolton Center. Since then, life has been pretty quiet – he stayed in the stall, picked some grass outside, lived through the Cecil County Fair across the street from his barn, weathered Hurricane Irene, watched stablemates ship to and from Saratoga, Presque Isle, Louisiana Downs. He also relocated from the Team Valor barn to Motion’s main barn, a short walk to the therapy center.

Team Valor’s Barry Irwin and Motion have talked about the Dubai World Cup as a target, but March is a long way off.

The comeback trail has already taken its first steps with walks in the AquaPacer, a treadmill that can be flooded with water at varying depths to provide resistance. He won’t do anything more than that through September. October will call for some jogging, gallops won’t start until November. His first breeze won’t come until December, maybe even January.

All being well, Animal Kingdom will have company from another Grade I-winning 3-year-old as Toby’s Corner awaited his cue to start AquaPacer work this week. The Wood Memorial winner spent much of the summer on a Cecil County farm and was scheduled for a checkup at New Bolton with the goal of joining Animal Kingdom on the road back to competition.

Examinations never pinpointed a cause for Toby’s Corner’s lameness, discovered days before the Derby, but Dianne Cotter’s homebred hasn’t run since defeating champion Uncle Mo in the Wood more than five months ago. Like Animal Kingdom, the son of Bellamy Road was off behind. He’s handled the layoff well, and actually got some turnout time. Toby’s Corner will follow a similar schedule as his stablemate – with a return to action in early 2012.

“The key will be for them to just be healthy I think,” said Motion, when asked what it will take to get the horses back to peak condition. “That’s what it’s going to be about. Animal Kingdom was a little more defined because we knew what we were dealing with. Toby’s Corner, we just didn’t know for sure, we gave him the time and now we’ll start over. It’s always difficult for a horse to come back off a layoff. Even if the old injury is fine, there are other things. They’ve both been given ample time and everybody’s done right by them so we’ll give them the best shot.”

NOTES: Motion’s Breeders’ Cup winner Shared Account aims for a return to action in Sunday’s Canadian Stakes at Woodbine. Sagamore Farm’s daughter of Pleasantly Perfect hasn’t run since placing fourth in the Gallorette on Preakness Day at Pimlico . . . Stephanoatsee, a half-brother to Shackleford, makes his debut for Motion and My Meadowview Farm at Laurel Friday . . . Fair Hill-based trainers enjoyed strong Saratoga meets including eight wins from Motion, five from Mike Trombetta and four from Michael Matz. Chuck Lawrence went 1-for-5.

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