Animal Kingdom: Straight and strong

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Gallop goes smoothly for the horse, the people

ST is  on the Triple Crown trail with daily updates from Fair Hill about Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom. He’s aiming for the Belmont Stakes, to be run June 11 at Belmont Park in New York.

Thursday, June 2

“He was a little tough today.”

“Did he try anything?”

“No, he was good.”

“He just had to remind you yesterday. Well done, very good.”

The italics belong to exercise rider David Nava. The other comments are from trainer Graham Motion as they briefly discussed Animal Kingdom’s 1 1/2-mile gallop on the dirt track at Fair Hill Training Center Thursday. Nava was still on the chestnut. Motion was alongside the horsepath, watching. Both men smiled.

A day after stopping short and dropping Nava to the track, the Kentucky Derby winner galloped with more purpose – churning through the distance on a crisp, clear morning and stopping only when asked.

The Team Valor colt’s longer gallops have a similar appearance. He spends the first half looking to his right, paying sparse attention to details (or where he’s going). The second half? Straight, focused, willing, strong. He wouldn’t look anywhere but down the track if you bribed him with a flake of alfalfa and a filly.

“Everybody asks me why he does that,” Motion said about Animal Kingdom’s habit of cocking his head outward on the track early. “I don’t know. It’s something he does. This winter in Florida, he was galloping in company because you had to kind of kick him around there. That’s him.”

The horse who stretches Nava’s arms, goes after other horses with purpose, that’s him too. The horse in attack mode – the one coming off the turn in the Derby and Preakness – that’s Animal Kingdom also.

Today, he went past a horse from another barn in the stretch. The horse responded with a brief challenge, but the would-be rival got a tug on the reins and a firm rebuke from his exercise rider.

“That’s Animal @#$%!&* Kingdom,” she told her horse as the Derby winner powered past.

For ordinary horses, there’s no use trying to race the chestnut in the red and green saddle towel.

Like all trainers, Motion sweats the details of a good horse. Behavior, health, schedule, attitude, fitness all matter. Especially as the third step of the Triple Crown beckons in nine days. The 1 1/2-mile Belmont looks to include the Derby winner, Preakness winner Shackleford, Derby runner-up Nehro and Irish invader Master Of Hounds among others.

“It’s a unique thing to be in this schedule,” Motion said. “With two weeks from the Derby to the Preakness and three weeks from the Preakness to the Belmont, you haven’t got a lot of time to be interfering with a horse or changing what a horse does. What he did yesterday, it’s not like it’s a repetitive thing. It’s something he’s looking to get away with.”

As he did before the Preakness, Animal Kingdom looks healthy and robust. He was blowing after his gallop Thursday and took big gulps of water from his dark green bucket while cooling out afterward. Wednesday night ushered in a huge shift in the weather at Fair Hill as two days of heat and humidity gave way to lower temperatures and steady breezes. Horses in general look more drawn, more world-weary when it’s hot. The forecast says 51 tonight. Assistant trainer Dave Rock – who called himself a “heat man” Wednesday – may have to break out the down jacket.

Worth Repeating
“The monkey will eat the berries when he sees the other monkey eat the berries.”
Assistant trainer Adrian Rolls, after a balky horse followed another on to the track

Take a Number
1: Deer in the woods next to the horsepath to Animal Kingdom’s barn Thursday at 8:50 a.m.


PHOTO: Animal Kingdom shows off his form (Scott Serio/Eclipse Sportswire).


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