Animal Kingdom, conqueror or the Kentucky Derby and the Dubai World Cup, will look to a new challenge later this month in plans announced today by Team Valor International and trainer H. Graham Motion through reclusive racing spokeswoman April Fulsdae.
Punchestown, the Irish National Hunt Festival, will be the site of the chestnut 5-year-old's next start. Specifically, Motion - whose given, if rarely used, first name is Hurdler - plans to school Animal Kingdom over chase fences in preparation for the Grade 1 Punchestown Gold Cup April 24. At 3 miles and 1 furlong, it's a bit of a stretch out in distance, but Motion remains confident.
"Really, he's just proven he's the best horse in the world on Tapeta going a mile-and-a-quarter so I have no problem thinking he'll go almost three times as far on turf and jump fences while carrying more weight," Motion said. "It's something I've always wanted to do with a horse. I think he can be as good - maybe better - than Flatterer. Besides, what have we got to lose? He's only going to run once more anyway. Australia can wait."
In the 1980s, Motion worked with the four-time American steeplechase champion while the assistant for trainer Jonathan Sheppard. Flatterer's brilliant career was capped by placings in the French and English champion hurdle races with Motion in the barn and on the lead shank. Taking Animal Kingdom to Ireland gets Motion back to those roots, and gives him a chance to teach a horse something new. After Punchestown, Animal Kingdom will be retired to stallion duty at Arrowfield Stud in Australia. The steeplechase start should help boost interest from mare owners who want to add some "jump" to their pedigrees. Daily Racing Form columnist Jay Hovdey called Animal Kingdom the most versatile horse since Ack Ack. Well, Ack Ack never did this.
Lost in the new plan is the previous goal of going to Royal Ascot in June. Motion met with the owners in Dubai and crafted the new plan. Team Valor's Barry Irwin was taken aback at first but, then jumped (literally) at the chance. "I thought it was a dead heat on who was crazier," said Irwin of himself and Motion and the various plans hatched for Animal Kingdom over the past two years. "Now I'm sure Graham wins, and it's not a photo finish. But I'll go along with it. I've always wanted to win a big jump race."
Far back in his racing past, Irwin tried steeplechasing with an internationally raced chestnut Kentucky-bred named Tej Singh (any of this sound familiar?). The son of Tejano Run competed in England, Dubai and Abu Dhabi before making two starts over jumps for Sheppard in 1996. Tej Singh was injured after finishing second in a maiden hurdle and eventually became a foxhunter in Maryland. Irwin has thought about the missed chance since.
"Opportunity only knocks once or twice or three or four times," the owner said. "We've had Animal Kingdom looked at by some steeplechase folks and they like what they see. They think he can really jump. Personally, I once saw him try to jump out of his stall when Graham's son Chappy walked by with a peppermint."
On Monday, Motion even went as far as giving Animal Kingdom a secret school over some fences on the back 40 at Meydan - course good to sandy. Irish jockey Joseph O'Brien was aboard for the training sessions and will ride Animal Kingdom at Punchestown. O'Brien's father Aidan, who trained the great Irish hurdler Istabraq, will make room for Animal Kingdom at Ballydolyle in County Tipperary.
"Lad was a great jumper, so he was," said O'Brien. "We just popped him over a few, did it nicely so he did. I can't wait to pull alongside Bobs Worth and Barry Geraghty coming to the last fence at Punchestown. It will be some craic. "