Ascot Eve: Animal Kingdom aims for history

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Twelve days ago, Graham Motion sat on a small couch in an office in an old house in Fair Hill, Maryland and stopped talking. The question really wasn’t fair, but made the trainer get quiet. Real quiet. What would it mean to win at Royal Ascot with Animal Kingdom?

“I really try not to think about it. It’s pretty unfathomable really. All his races, I have really not allowed myself to think about that too much because it’s easy to get caught up in it . . . Obviously, it would mean an awful lot.”

He could find out tomorrow as Animal Kingdom headlines the first race of the classic British race meeting. Ascot Racecourse dates to 1711 and hosts some of the world’s most important Thoroughbred racing. The five-day Royal Ascot meet doubles down on the prestige with attendance by the Royal family, formal attire for just about everyone and seven Group 1 races. An American challenger such as Animal Kingdom, Kentucky Derby winner of 2011 and Dubai World Cup hero of 2013, only adds further electricity.

Owned by Team Valor International, Arrowfield Stud and Darley, Animal Kingdom is heavily favored in a field of 13 in the 1-mile Queen Anne Stakes. He’ll break from the outside post on the straight course under John Velazquez. The race starts at 2:30 Tuesday afternoon in England, 9:30 a.m. Eastern. TVG and HRTV will offer American coverage.

But those are just the facts. Defining the impact, the feeling, the meaning of winning Tuesday seems akin to tying water in a knot.

The history is part of it. Royal Ascot hosted its first race 164 years before the Kentucky Derby. The course has lasted through revolutions, world wars, a dozen English monarchs starting with its founder Queen Anne who opened the course with “Her Majesty’s Plate” in August 1711.

The sheer audacity of the challenge is part of it. American horses have tackled Royal Ascot before, most recently a short list of speedy, turf-loving 2-year-olds, but not like this, not after winning the richest race in the world in the Middle East. He does follow at least one Derby hero to subsequently try Ascot as 1935 Triple Crown winner Omaha finished second in the 1936 Ascot Gold Cup.

For Motion, there’s one more piece which helps make the attempt in the Queen Anne momentous – the challenge. He’s English-born, but no doubt an American trainer. He regularly talks about the importance of his 1987 trip to England with steeplechase great Flatterer, while working for Jonathan Sheppard. Flatterer finished second to British hurdling legend See You Then, but won universal praise for the effort.

“As a trainer you want to be challenged,” he said. “You want to see your horse challenged and I can’t imagine anything more challenging than this. Ever since I took Flatterer to Cheltenham for Jonathan it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. That will always be one of the greatest experiences of my life in racing.”

Until Animal Kingdom came along, an international raid was little more than a dream to the conservative Motion. He thought about it with turf star Better Talk Now, who did try Dubai and Japan, talked about it with Pluck two years ago before he went wrong. You don’t just fly to England and run. Not if you’re Motion. You wait for the right horse, the one that might take you there. Twenty years after saddling his first runner, Motion will tighten the girth on Animal Kingdom at Ascot. Win or lose, he’s the right horse.

“That’s what it comes down to; you wouldn’t fathom what we’re doing with this horse with just any horse,” Motion said. “It is uncharted territory. We had to do things a little differently. But again, I wouldn’t have done all this unless we thought that much of the horse. It’s a credit to the horse that we’re even thinking about it.”

AKEngland2Bred in Kentucky by Team Valor, Animal Kingdom began innocently enough – a son of Brazilian-bred turf miler Leroidesanimaux and the German-bred mare Dalicia. The chestnut colt won once in two starts as a 2-year-old of 2010, when trained by Wayne Catalano. Moved to Motion with the rest of the Team Valor horses for the 2011 season, Animal Kingdom upset the Derby in his first try on dirt. Beaten a half-length in the Preakness, he was train-wrecked in the Belmont Stakes when slammed at the start and emerged with a hock injury. Surgery finished his 3-year-old campaign, but Team Valor and Motion aimed high for 2012 – circling the Dubai World Cup. He won his prep at Gulfstream Park in February, but missed Dubai and several months to overcome a fracture in his pelvis. Again, his connections aimed high and – off a nearly nine-month layoff – Animal Kingdom finished second to eventual Horse of the Year Wise Dan in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. Brought back for a 5-year-old campaign, and another announced try at Dubai, Animal Kingdom finished second to turf star Point Of Entry in the Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap in February. On March 30 at Meydan, he confirmed all that promise by simply running away with the $10 million race.

Despite its stops and starts – he’s run just 11 times – Animal Kingdom’s career stands as a mark of consistent excellence. Ten of his races ended with a first or a second, the only real blemish coming at Belmont.

Now comes Ascot, where he’s become a heavy favorite despite the new tasks in front of him – straight course, potentially soft turf, English training, short (on paper) distance. When it comes to handicapping, Animal Kingdom stands out at 4-6 by English bookmaker William Hill. Second choices Declaration Of War and filly Elusive Kate are 7-1. Last year, superstar Frankel won the Queen Anne. There are no Frankels to deal with this time, though Animal Kingdom could rival the unbeaten champion in attention and reputation with another victory.

America’s champion 3-year-old of 2011 is a blend of two devastating characteristics.

“Talent and his temperament are his two biggest attributes,” Motion said. “He’s extremely talented and he’s just got this remarkable disposition to handle everything so well. He just has it naturally. It’s developed to be better, but he’s had it.”

That temperament allows his connections to try unorthodox moves. He’s won on dirt, turf and synthetic surfaces. He looks just as formidable at a mile as he does at 1 ¼ miles. He’s trained in Florida, Maryland, Kentucky and now England. It took two American superstars – Wise Dan and Point Of Entry – to beat Animal Kingdom or else he’d be bidding for a fifth consecutive win.

Motion nearly opted for the 1 ¼-mile Prince of Wales’s Stakes at Ascot, making the shorter choice based on the variables facing his horse. He’ll have to win on unfamiliar ground, going uphill in a big field. The Queen Anne course is straight, which is unique enough for an American horse but the other option would have included a downhill run, two right-hand turns, a steep climb from Swinley Bottom and a greater chance of soft turf.

“I felt it was the lesser of the two evils perhaps, and I really didn’t get a feel for that until I walked the course myself,” said Motion, who also got advice from veteran English jockey Ted Durcan. “The straight could be confusing for him, but I thought the mile-and-a-quarter would be more complex between the climb, which is even more severe on that course, and going right-handed.”

The challenge at Ascot differs greatly from Dubai, where the main concern was the trip itself. Motion figured his horse would handle the 1 ¼-mile World Cup, on an oval course. He didn’t know if his horse would hold his conditioning through a long flight and a new location. This time, Animal Kingdom appears to have taken to English training from a base in the yard of trainer David Lanigan for the last 11 weeks. At Ascot, the course poses the question. Can Animal Kingdom transfer his ability, his blend of speed, stamina, talent and temperament to a straight mile, uphill, on the turf.

“Dubai was just about the traveling, that was the complication; the track was the same, the mile-and-a-quarter we knew wasn’t an issue on an oval,” Motion said. “This is an unknown, with a straight mile on an undulating course with ground you don’t know what it’s going to be like on the day. Add in to that you’ve been training in what’s basically a foreign land for you. This is a much more complicated thing.”

Not that he’s shying from the opportunity.

Motion did his homework, connected with Lanigan through mutual client Flaxman Holdings and mapped out a plan overseen by traveling assistant Alice Clapham. After Dubai, Animal Kingdom shipped to England and trained lightly for two weeks. He then went about working back to race fitness on the famed Lambourn gallops with Clapham or Irish-born jump jockey Peter Carberry aboard. The horse worked for Durcan at Lambourn, and for Velazquez at Ascot to get a feel.

Motion expects the race, despite being a quarter-mile shorter, to test Animal Kingdom’s stamina more than Dubai. From the start in England, fitness has been the goal.

“It’s a constant worry as a trainer, you hope you have the horse fit enough and it’s a little different over there for me, because it’s an unknown; you haven’t done it before,” Motion said. “I feel like he should be where we want him to be.”

Motion monitored the preparations from home in Maryland, daily communication with Clapham and several flights to England. He also went technological and followed Animal Kingdom’s progress through the English company Equinity, a GPS-based training device that monitors distance traveled, heart rate, time and other variables.

“After the Dubai World Cup, the question was whether it was something I was prepared to go along with and put everything into,” Motion said. “I felt that I would and I could and it was important. I felt like I owed it to those guys to put everything into it, to go for it. We can’t go to Royal Ascot and do it half-assed, we’ve got to do it right.”

Ascot is designed to be Animal Kingdom’s final start, with a career at stud looming – first in Australia with Arrowfield and later with Darley in Kentucky – though Arrowfield’s John Messara has hinted at the possibility of further starts for the 5-year-old. Motion’s biased, but he’d welcome further challenges.

“I think there’s a very small window, but I realize it’s pretty unlikely,” he said. “It would be tough to do, he’s booked to 80 mares in Australia already. He seems like he’s in the best form of his life physically and everything, but I’m also very fortunate I’ve gotten to run him as much as I have.”


*Photo above right: Animal Kingdom in England. Amy Lanigan photo.


More about Animal Kingdom and Ascot.

Meet Alice Clapham.

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