As Wichita State steamrolled La Salle en route ot the Elight Eight Thursday night, Graham Motion was not checking his NCAA bracket and wondering how to spell Cleanthony Early.
The trainer was half a world – and half a day – away, within view of the world’s tallest building, watching Animal Kingdom’s final gallop before the Dubai World Cup at Meydan Race Course Friday morning (Dubai time). The horse went fine, and Motion took a deep breath.
“He’s extremely sharp,” Motion said. “He’s handled everything really well. I couldn’t be happier. He just had his last gallop, it’s a big relief to have it over with. I expected him to handle it all, but I’m surprised at how well he’s handled the trip, the travel, everything.”
Saturday night (in Dubai), the 2011 Kentucky Derby winner and 2012 Breeders’ Cup Mile runner-up will try to end an American drought in the world’s richest race. It’s been four years since Well Armed won the race’s final running at the Nad al Sheba track. Three runnings on Tapeta at Meydan have gone to runners based in France, Japan and Dubai. Animal Kingdom, Royal Delta and Dullahan represent the U.S. in a field of 13 this year.
Each brings a chance. Animal Kingdom thrives at the 1 ¼-mile distance, has won on all surfaces and gets to the race at what could be a career peak off back-to-back seconds to Wise Dan and Point Of Entry. Two-time champion Royal Delta tested Dubai last year and finished seventh after a tough trip. She won her prep at Gulfstream Park and has proven her quality for Besilu Stable and trainer Bill Mott. Dullahan’s best races have come on synthetic surfaces and he prepped at Meydan March 9 for Donegal Racing and trainer Dale Romans. The Yanks face a cast of international runners from Dubai, France, England, Ireland and so on.
Godolphin’s Hunter’s Light is the 7-2 favorite on the morning line, followed by Royal Delta (4-1), Animal Kingdom (5-1) and Dullahan (6-1). Last year’s winner Monterosso is 20-1. Post time for the ninth race on the card is 2:05 p.m. (Eastern) and the races will be shown on TVG, HRTV and other sources.
The day of racing tops $27 million in total purses and gets started with a $250,000 race for Arabians. From there, it’s nothing but seven figures and big Thoroughbred names including Alpha and Maryland-bred veteran Barbecue Eddie in the Godolphin Mile, a 2-mile turf race, California-based He’s Had Enough in the UAE Derby, Christophe Clement’s Varsity in the Al Quoz turf sprint, champion sprinter Trinniberg in the Golden Shaheen, Little Mike in the $5 million Dubai Duty Free, Irish star St Nicholas Abbey in the $5 million Sheema Classic and then the big one.
Motion has run horses in Dubai, but never in the World Cup. The wait will take a toll.
“The reason I love the Breeders’ Cup is because it’s an international event and that’s what I was brought up with,” Motion said earlier in the week. “The international competition is spectacular. It’s a neat event, unusual, to be in a foreign country but that night of racing is just amazing. This year, it’s going to be very hard for me to enjoy it. It’s going to be a long night worrying about the last race.”
Though it’s not the Kentucky Derby or the Breeders’ Cup, the World Cup brings its own kind of pressure on the connections of horses.
“I felt pressure going to the Breeders’ Cup last year just because we were doing something out of our routine and I hoped I had made right decision,” Motion said. “I was very anxious about that and I feel the same way about this. It’s a long way to come to have something go wrong in the last few days. Having the horse seem as good as he is helps. Every indication is he’s going to handle it.”
Animal Kingdom’s World Cup schedule never took a detour and included some fine tuning at Meydan this week. His gallops drew raves for their power and his sharpness. Tuesday, he worked 3 furlongs in 36 seconds and change.
Like everyone else, Motion has been impressed – though he pointed out the vibrant training of Royal Delta and Dullahan too.
“He’s pretty sharp, he’s galloped strong here, especially since his breeze; I think it’s a good thing,” Motion said of Animal Kingdom. “But everyone’s done well. Royal Delta looks great. Dullahan looks well. It doesn’t appear to be as stressful as you’d think it would be on them. They take very good care of you and that makes it work for us and for the horses.”
Motion is buoyed by his horse’s health and aggressiveness, and compared him to Gio Ponti, whose performances in the 2010 (fourth) and 2011 (fifth) World Cups are the best since the move to Meydan. Gio Ponti excelled on the turf, but also fit in Grade 1 competition on synthetic surfaces.
“Face it, (Animal Kingdom) appears to be more of a grass horse,” said Motion. “Gio Ponti ran very well in Dubai. He got beat less than 4 lengths total in the two races he ran. Perhaps we haven’t had the right horses. Gio Ponti was a serious grass horse, who could handle the mile and a quarter.”
And so, Motion figures, is Animal Kingdom. He gets a chance to prove it on the world’s stage Saturday.
NOTES: Officially, which really doesn’t matter, Animal Kingdom represents Australia in the World Cup program as Team Valor International now shares ownership with Arrowfield Stud, where the son of Leroidesanimaux will begin stud duty this fall . . . Motion said last week that tentative plans call for Animal Kingdom to head to England April 5 or 6 with a possible tilt at Royal Ascot pending the World Cup performance and the horse’s health.