Animal Kingdom: How We Got Here

- -


Belmont provides final step on Triple Crown Trail

ST is still on the Triple Crown Trail, following Fair Hill-based Animal Kingdom through Saturday’s Belmont Stakes. He’s at Belmont now, and was made the 2-1 favorite for the 1 1/2-mile race.

Friday, June 10


The day before the big day. All quiet here in Fair Hill. Horses train, people work, temperatures rise, writers wonder how they got here.

This project started April 14 with Wood Memorial winner Toby’s Corner and a question from the local UPS driver. “When is the Kentucky Derby anyway?” he asked while dropping a package at the Herringswell Stable office.

This is the 50th installment in a Triple Crown Journal that’s gone from Toby’s Corner to Animal Kingdom, jogging in a field on a chilly morning at Fair Hill to working a bullet half-mile in the heat at Belmont Park.

We felt the buzz of prepping a Thoroughbred for a major race and watched the pain of losing the chance ripple through a barn. We watched the Can you believe it? moment of winning the Derby with another horse. We felt the pressure and immediacy of getting ready for the Preakness. We saw people deal with the ache of getting just close enough to taste a Triple Crown bid.

Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid, who still calls and texts trainer Graham Motion with messages of luck and empathy, visited the barn and asked about pulled muscles. The governor made a speech. Kenny Mayne was here. So was Sports Illustrated, the New York Times, Associated Press, random neighbors and fans. SportsCenter found Motion’s mobile number, as did NPR. The ST website set a record for traffic. Van driver Keith Cooper texted photos of Animal Kingdom’s ride from Kentucky. A television news crew mistook me for the man who won the Derby. A horse wrote a column. That Orioles game, where Motion tossed the first pitch, seems like a long time ago.

My favorite moments came in the mornings: Feeding mints to Toby’s Corner, talking horses with Adrian Rolls, trading quips with Johnny and the other exercise riders, simply watching horses gallop, listening to Motion deftly answer questions (some from me), helping a fan who drove up to the barn just to “get a glimpse” of Animal Kingdom, watching the Derby winner stroll the shedrow like a sleepy pony days after winning the most important horse race in the world, pulling a quote out of blacksmith Mark Pino without him really knowing it.

Motion called me when he realized Toby’s Corner had a problem. The trainer delivered bad news quickly, succinctly, then asked for help in letting the world know so he could catch a plane. Rolls called me while driving home from Belmont on Derby Day. He watched the biggest race he and Motion ever won on a tackroom television set – alone with his thoughts. Becky Kelly talked candidly about the gut-punch of watching Toby’s Corner jog lame five days before the Derby. Motion beamed while proudly showing off a poster of the Derby finish line – where stable staffers Dave Rock, Heather Craig and John Panagot can be seen celebrating among the masses in the background. Veterinarian Luis Castro spoke for many when he said about the Derby win, “I really don’t think it would have been any better if it had been my own horse. Honestly. That’s amazing, I know, but that’s how I feel about it.” Motion’s former assistant Leigh Delacour did the same when she said she was “standing on the couch” as Animal Kingdom roared down the Churchill Downs stretch.

Now, 50 postings and 57 days in, Animal Kingdom heads to the Belmont Stakes. He’s the 2-1 favorite for the Grade I race’s 143rd running. Team Valor’s colt breaks from post nine and will most likely have to try and catch Preakness winner Shackleford once again.

Animal Kingdom can win another Grade I race, solidify his chances for year-end championship honors and give the people in his life another thrill. He can’t become racing’s 12th Triple Crown winner, but he can join another list of 11 that have won the Derby and the Belmont (without the Preakness). Nobody recites that roster (see below) from memory, but it’s a chance for history, for validation, for making a statement.

“I’ve thought about, how can you not think about it?” Motion said when asked Thursday about the possibility of missing the Triple Crown by a half-length. “I hate to say it, but you’ll think about what might have been. Who wouldn’t?”

At the same time, the trainer wouldn’t change anything about his horse’s preparation that took him from Derby outsider without a dirt start to Derby winner, Preakness runner-up and Belmont favorite.

“I can’t think of anything I would have done differently, I really can’t,” he said. “That is a pretty good feeling really.”

– Eleven Triple Crown winners (in order): Sir Barton (1919), Gallant Fox (1930), Omaha (1935), War Admiral (1937), Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946), Citation (1948), Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977), Affirmed (1978).

– Eleven Derby/Belmont winners (in order): Zev (1923), Twenty Grand (1931), Johnstown (1939), Shut Out (1942), Middleground (1950), Needles (1956), Chateaugay (1963), Riva Ridge (1972), Bold Forbes (1976), Swale (1984), Thunder Gulch (1995).

– With a post time of 6:35 p.m., the Belmont will be the 11th of 13 races and will be telecast nationally on NBC beginning at 5 p.m., with coverage on Versus from 3-5 p.m. Versus will also carry post-race coverage from 7-7:30 p.m.

– Saturday’s card also features the Grade I Acorn, Just A Game and Manhattan stakes. Turf champion Gio Ponti goes in the latter while tough turf fillies/mares Aviate, Gypsy’s Warning and Fantasia tangle in the Just A Game.

– You can listen to Horse Racing Radio Network’s Belmont shows Saturday. The Equine Forum show is live from 8-10 a.m. on the HRRN Website, followed by Belmont Stakes Day undercard coverage from 2-4 p.m. and the national Belmont Stakes broadcast from 5-7 p.m. on Sirius 93 and XM 209 along with other local affiiliates.


PHOTO: Animal Kingdom trains Friday at Belmont Park. (Scott Serio/Eclipse Sportswire).


Read previous Journal Entries.

Follow ST Publishing on Twitter.