While winning the fifth race on a Saturday at Gulfstream is not going to be a highlight of his career – it did make ESPN’s Top 10 plays of the day to the delight of trainer Graham Motion — it was nevertheless important.
It has been a very long time since a Derby winner returned at age four and mounted any winning campaign, Animal Kingdom’s success looks like a great start. Not since 2005 Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo has a winner of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky even managed a single victory in the next racing year. Animal Kingdom with this victory has gone back to the Kentucky Derby winners of old.
“I think when you have a Derby winner everybody owns a little piece of him,” Motion said on Saturday. “It may sound a little corny, but when you have a Derby winner, he’s a little bit the people’s horse and you have a responsibility. I think the reception he got was neat, and I’m glad we got to run him here.”
There is a definite mystique that surrounds the Kentucky Derby winner, a starring role in the unfolding American drama that is the possibility of the Triple Crown every year (at least until the Preakness Stakes is run). Recent winners, however, have been exposed as horses of the moment not the ages, and even the best of recent decades have either disappeared into the breeding shed or for various reasons left legacies wanting futilely for substantiation. The tragedy and unrealized stardom of Barbaro overshadowed every other story that developed during 2006 and he may have been the one. We will never truly know. But the last Derby winner whose stardom endured at age four is considered Alysheba, a 3-year-old of 1987.
The hind-leg injury suffered in the last Belmont Stakes that ended Animal Kingdom’s 3-year-old campaign may in time be considered a blessing in disguise if not for the horse and his connections, then for the fans and the sport at large in 2012. No problems last year may well have added Animal Kingdom to the roster of Kentucky Stallions, instead of his going on to the March 31 Dubai World Cup.