LOUISVILLE ? When Animal Kingdom showed potential by gaining his first career victory in his second lifetime start Oct. 23 at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Ky., Barry Irwin made a key decision on behalf of Team Valor International.
Most would have given the youngster his first opportunity in a stakes race. Irwin took the road less traveled by rewarding the 2-year-old with a month on a farm where the feed was plentiful and young bones could grow.
"That's admirable. You don't see it that much these days," trainer Graham Motion said. "A horse doesn't have to be injured to give him time off."
LONG SHOT: Animal Kingdom wins Derby
PHOTOS: Derby day at Churchill Downs
Animal Kingdom's tender handling throughout his young career produced unimagined dividends when he became the first Thoroughbred in history to use the Kentucky Derby for a successful dirt debut Saturday.
He and jockey John Velazquez, who ended an 0-for-12 Derby slide as a late replacement for injured and unhappy Robby Albarado, look to be well-positioned for an optimal run at the middle leg of the Triple Crown, the May 21 Preakness Stakes. No horse has won the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978.
In a year in which leading Derby contenders proved too fragile, Animal Kingdom benefited from the gentlest of care. He made three starts on synthetic surfaces and one on grass before showing a record Churchill Downs crowd of 164,858 that he can run on anything with a startling 2¾-length victory against Nehro.
His four career starts are the fewest for a Derby winner since Exterminator in 1918. The six-week gap between his 2¾-length victory in the Spiral Stakes — his only test against stakes competition — and the 1¼-mile Run for the Roses marked the longest layoff since Needles in 1956.
"The fact that he's lightly raced bodes well for him to go on to the Preakness," Motion said.
The 1 3/16-mile Preakness, with its two-week turnaround, looks to represent a greater hurdle for the son of Leroidesanimaux to a Triple Crown than the 1½-mile Belmont Stakes on June 11.
"The Belmont is the kind of race this horse was bred to win," says Irwin, noting that the German dam, Dalicia, also was known for stamina.
Animal Kingdom was given one of the easiest possible paths to the Derby. He was held back until he made his first 3-year-old start March 3 in an allowance race at Florida's Gulfstream Park. He placed second by a diminishing head in his first test on grass.
Since he needed graded stakes earnings to qualify for the expected full Derby field of 20, he was given his first such test in the Grade 3 Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park in Florence, Ky., on March 26. He powered clear by 2¾ lengths for jockey Alan Garcia.
Animal Kingdom's résumé was so thin that many saw him as an understudy to Toby's Corner, who pulled a stunning upset of 2-year-old champion Uncle Mo when he won the Wood Memorial for Motion on April 9.
"I didn't think he was a second-tier horse, but I knew the other horse belonged (in the Derby)," the trainer said.
Toby's Corner never reached Churchill Downs, joining a list of top contenders that includes Jaycito, Premier Pegasus, The Factor and ailing Uncle Mo, who fell off while preparing for the most important start of their lives.
Uncle Mo is expected to undergo an extensive medical exam to determine why he is eating poorly and losing weight.
"I don't see any way he makes any of the Triple Crown races," trainer Todd Pletcher said.
Owner Mike Repole has no regrets about scratching Uncle Mo last Friday.
"If he had run in this race, it could have knocked him out for the entire year," he said. "We made the right decision."
The son of Indian Charlie was pushed hard and responded brilliantly as he produced a 3-for-3 record as a 2-year-old. He dominated his first three starts by a combined 23¼ lengths, including a 4¼-length romp in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last November at Churchill Downs. That appeared to bode well before things went awry last month.
Animal Kingdom was at a farm, kicking back like a couch potato, while Uncle Mo was being drilled for the Juvenile.
Now, Motion thinks he is so fit and ready for the Preakness that he might not work him between starts.
"I'm not even sure it will be necessary," he said, "but we'll see."