Can Animal Kingdom win the Dubai World Cup? Nobody knows and the answer won’t come until Saturday in the desert. But trainer Graham Motion knows his horse has the right combination of ability, preparation and attitude to be competitive.
The last trait might be the most important, for a Thoroughbred must be more than fast, agile, brave and fit to win the 1 ¼-mile test against the world’s best. A horse must also be able to handle the rigors beyond competition – the travel, the quarantine process, the new surroundings, the hot days, the cool nights, the buzz.
“It’s very important, a big part of it,” trainer Graham Motion said of his horse’s mental state. “He does have a great attitude about things like that. He’s always had a remarkably laid-back attitude. As 3-year-old, we had to gallop him in company because he was so laid back.”
He’s no longer that calm, as evidenced by the way he jumps on the bridle in races and workouts. On the track, Animal Kingdom is bigger and stronger than he was.
“He’s more aggressive in the mornings now; that’s the biggest change,” said Motion. “Physically, he’s more stout and a bigger, stronger horse. He’s done a considerable amount of changing in that way.”
Otherwise, same horse. Animal Kingdom handles stress, atmosphere, excitement just fine. He won the Kentucky Derby, the biggest stage in American racing. He handled the chaos that is Preakness Day and the attention that is Breeders’ Cup Week. He’s won on dirt, turf and synthetic surfaces. He’s trained at Fair Hill, Palm Meadows, Keeneland, Churchill Downs, Belmont Park, Santa Anita.
The chestnut’s latest preparations came at Florida’s Palm Meadows Training Center. The place is more serene than a racetrack, but not quite the peace of Motion’s home base at Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland. That facility draws few daily visitors (for the horses anyway), counts on trainers to log official workouts and offers more options than a Disney resort. Horses can train on dirt, Tapeta, a full turf course dating to 1934, acres of rolling fields. And, if need be, the on-site equine therapy center offers a vibration floor, an underwater treadmill, a cold saltwater spa, even a horse solarium of sorts.
Given his druthers, Motion would have preferred to train at home instead of Florida though Mother Nature made that decision for him. Winter in Maryland does not translate to racing in the Middle East. Winter in Florida does.
To gear up for the Breeders’ Cup last fall, Motion trained Animal Kingdom at Fair Hill – using the 79-year-old steeplechase course for turf works. The preps were perfect as Animal Kingdom motored through half-mile, 5-furlong and even 6-furlong moves. Built by William du Pont Jr., architect of Delaware Park and the Iroquois Steeplechase course in Tennessee among others, the layout was constructed with jump racing in mind. The straights are long – for fence placement – which leaves the turns a little tight. The circuit also steadily climbs from the backside to the wire, making for demanding workouts and fit horses. Animal Kingdom worked 6 furlongs in 1:12 and change – most of it uphill – there last fall. Motion beamed afterward, and went to the Breeders’ Cup Mile confident in his horse’s preparation.
“I’d be more comfortable training him at Fair Hill,” Motion said. “Maybe that’s a broad statement. I got in a bit of a comfort zone doing what we did for the Breeders’ Cup. I really got a feel of what we needed to do and what it was going to take. He’s ready and I’m confident I’ve gotten him fit, but down here (at Palm Meadows), it’s a whole different training situation. Fair Hill is our base, I know what it takes.”
Fair Hill also comes with a little less attention, drawing few witnesses (especially across the road on the turf) and virtually no scrutiny.
“He’s not being watched every time he works,” said Motion. “If he’s going too fast at Fair Hill, I can jump on the racetrack, I can slow him down if I have to. If he’s going too slow, I can speed him up. You’re not going to have 12 people analyzing him every time he gallops.”
Twelve is probably an understatement.
The prep work in Florida, including a second to Point Of Entry in the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap Feb. 9, might have tested Motion’s comfort zone but was also steady, progressive, sharp. Team Valor International’s stable star worked three times in March – 6 furlongs, 7 furlongs, 5 furlongs (the latter a bullet 1:01.78 – since the race.
“He’s had a race and three serious works since then. He’s right where he should be,” said Motion. “(The race) got him where we wanted him to be. It’s easy to forget it was only his second race in a year. Dubai was always the goal. At Gulfstream, we wanted to win the race, but it was about getting him to Dubai. I trained him very hard up to the Breeders’ Cup because he had to be super fit to run that day having not run for as long as he had. We were a little easier on him coming up to the Gulfstream race.”
Motion said he didn’t notice that until afterward, when Animal Kingdom went back to work and was as sharp as a new set of Fiskars.
The horse went to Dubai late last week. His trainer followed Sunday. The finishing touches will include gallops on the Tapeta at Meydan Race Course, some turnout time in a round pen, and a 3-furlong breeze this morning. The work brought plenty of praise. Photos from Dubai show a typically strong Animal Kingdom, head cocked toward the camera – exercise rider Alice Clapham with a double handful through the reins, German martingale and figure-eight noseband.
Motion likes how ready his horse seems.
“The timing now has been perfect,” he said. “I thought about going to Dubai early for a prep race there, but the timing of the Gulfstream race was too good not to take advantage of. I couldn’t believe when I was looking at the schedule that it was that weekend. For me, it was the best scenario to get him ready.”