When the great English Triple Crown winner Nijinsky suffered the first loss of his career in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in 1970, owner Charles Engelhard took the fall when he said something to the effect of “I asked too much of the horse. I let him down.”
Such is the life of Thoroughbred owners and trainers. They ask questions, almost always at least one too many or one too difficult.
Two weeks after Animal Kingdom’s career ended with a dull 11th in the Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot, trainer Graham Motion was thinking like Engelhard.
“That’s how I felt,” said Motion while sitting at his desk after training last weekend. “I just think I asked too much of him. I’m not sure in hindsight that it was the right thing to do. That mile was just too confusing for him. I thought it was pretty well in the scope of him, but ultimately it was too much. It was unfair to him. You make the decision. You can’t help but feel you’ve asked one too many questions of a horse.”
After winning the Dubai World Cup in March, Animal Kingdom went to England to train for a historic attempt on a Group 1 at Royal Ascot. Motion considered the Queen Anne, the meeting’s first race at a mile on the straight course, and the Prince of Wales’s at 1 ¼ miles with a right-hand turn and a steep incline. Both were sharp contrasts to American racing in terms of course layout, turf condition and other variables. Animal Kingdom, winner of the 2011 Kentucky Derby, runner-up in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Mile, winner of the 2013 Dubai World Cup, seemed up to the challenge. Under the constant care of Motion assistant Alice Clapham (and regular trans-Atlantic visits from the trainer), the 5-year-old Kentucky-bred trained at David Lanigan’s yard in Lambourn and signaled nothing but readiness. Animal Kingdom galloped on the historic turf, strolling to and from the training ground like an English campaigner. He worked for jockey Ted Durcan, galloped for steeplechase jockey Peter Carberry, even tested the Ascot course for John Velazquez once Motion settled on the Queen Anne.
By raceday, the Yank was a sensation – heavily favored against 12 others and drawing attention from the racing press, the public, other horsemen at home and in England. Motion compared the feeling to running the horse in the 2011 Preakness. Everybody hopes the Derby winner takes the second stage of the Triple Crown, and everybody supports the idea a good horse tackling a difficult task in a foreign land.
But when such a horse loses, the disappointment comes in waves.
“It got a little overwhelming. I hadn’t anticipated so much hype about it which made it that much harder afterward when he didn’t run very well,” said Motion. “You certainly felt like you let people down. By and large everyone was rooting for him to do well. Nobody was against him there. That was pretty cool, but it certainly made it harder afterward.
“That’s a tremendous amount of pressure, a lot of weight on your shoulders.”
Animal Kingdom broke sharply from post 13, the stand side as the English put it but the extreme inside or outside depending on how you look at it. He pulled Velazquez early, then relented and backed off. For a half-furlong (maybe) he looked comfortable and then he didn’t. Animal Kingdom didn’t quicken when the others did, and retreated. Velazquez told Motion afterward that maybe he should have let Animal Kingdom go early, taken up the running. Would it have made a difference? Nobody knows, but it would have been a brave thing to do given the horse’s normally off-the-pace running style.
Motion watched like everyone else, and wondered.
“It was very awkward,” he said. “He came out of there pretty much running off. I hoped he would break a step slow and kind of get covered up. When he drew the outside post, or the inside whatever you want to call it that made it more complicated.”
As far as the race is concerned, pick your variable – straight course, soft (for American horses) turf, slow pace. They did him in. Maybe, Motion thinks now, the longer race would have been a better option. Run later in the Ascot meet, the race was contested on firmer turf and the course configuration may have helped his horse.
“Perhaps the mile-and-a-quarter with a turn, he might have settled,” Motion said. “It’s a tricky race. I blame myself. I think the mile was just not right for him.”
Motion compared the straight Ascot mile to the long turf backstretch at Woodbine in Canada. Horses, especially those making their first starts over the course, can run too freely in the early stages. He’s seen it before, and thought of it after Ascot.
The performance erased nearly three months of seemingly perfect preparation as Motion, Clapham and the horse handled a new country and a new training ground in advance of the new challenge.
“The most disappointing thing was what went into getting him there, and how well he did, and have it all go down the tubes in about 30 seconds,” Motion said. “Everything went really well, except the race. We covered all our bases. The training, considering how tricky it was, went really well. He’d done everything he needed to do.”
Much was made over Animal Kingdom’s studdish behavior in the Ascot paddock before the race, including a column written by Team Valor’s Barry Irwin in the Thoroughbred Daily News. Motion watched it and worried, like trainers do.
“He did get very unsettled in the paddock and I know that didn’t help,” Motion said. “That was very uncharacteristic of him. That’s one thing I never worry about. He’s always been so good. We were there for 25 minutes before we saddled him, and that was a long time. He got fairly unglued by the filly. That was something I started to notice in his training. There were a couple of mares on the way home from his gallops and he would really pay attention to them. I thought he settled down (by race time), but I don’t think that helped. He was fairly wound up, which is a shame because that’s something I thought would never be an issue.”
Animal Kingdom – now owned by Team Valor, Arrowfield Stud and Darley – left Motion’s care two days after the Ascot defeat. The 5-year-old moved to Darley’s English base Dalham Hall Stud in Newmarket. He was slated to be part of the farm's stallion show along with Dubawi and New Approach among others this month, then head to Australia’s Arrowfield Stud, where he’ll be part of an open house there in late August. Breeding season starts in September.
“As disappointing as it is to see him leave, it certainly takes the sting out of it when he goes off to a place like that,” Motion said. “The opportunities he’s going to have are the best. He’ll have the best care that can be offered. As a trainer that’s all you can hope for – that you can send a horse to that sort of after-racing career. What more can you ask for? In that respect, it’s very gratifying.”
He won the Kentucky Derby on dirt, the World Cup on synthetic and finished second in two Grade 1 stakes (to Wise Dan and Point Of Entry) on turf. Early reports indicated strong demand in Australia, and Animal Kingdom will stand at Darley for an American season. His trainer, who gets a season, might even send a mare. Miss Lombardi earned $300,000 while racing for Motion. Her first foal, by Cowboy Cal, has yet to race.
As a stallion, Animal Kingdom will get every chance.
“His legacy could ultimately be what he does in the breeding shed,” Motion said. “I really believe he has the full package. Physically he’s such a specimen, mentally and talent wise I couldn’t imagine finding a horse with those three qualities like he has. He almost won the Breeders’ Cup Mile, he won as a 2-year-old, he has an extraordinary turn of foot.”
Animal Kingdom was one of the group of horses turned over to Motion from Team Valor late in 2010. With trainer Wayne Catalano, the chestnut won as a 2-year-old at Keeneland in October. Bred by Team Valor, the son of turf miler Leroidesanimaux and German-bred mare Dalicia won the Spiral Stakes in his second start for Motion and captured the Kentucky Derby in his first start on dirt.
From there, and really from the Spiral, his career rocketed up, down, all over. Dramatic all the way.
Jockey Robby Albarado was injured days before the Derby and replaced (though he rode on the day) by John Velazquez who only became available when Uncle Mo scratched. Longtime friends, Velazquez and Motion won their first Derbies, together. Two weeks later, Animal Kingdom came up a frustrating half-length short of Shackleford while rallying in the Preakness at Pimlico in Maryland, where Motion’s training career began. Three weeks later, Motion's horse was sideswiped at the start of the Belmont Stakes, nearly losing Velazquez, and finished sixth. The Derby winner emerged with a hock injury and had surgery, putting him on extended stall rest. Motion and Irwin announced an ambitious plan for a 4-year-old campaign and targeted the 2012 Dubai World Cup. After eight months without a race, Animal Kingdom returned to win a turf allowance at Gulfstream in February. All systems were go for Dubai, and then they weren't as a fractured bone in his pelvis sent Animal Kingdom back to the sidelines. Again, Motion and Irwin were bold and targeted (quietly at first, then publicly) the Breeders’ Cup Mile. Animal Kingdom trained frequently on the historic turf course at Fair Hill, home to 80 years of steeplechase heroics including efforts by Hall of Famers Flatterer, Lonesome Glory, Zaccio and Tuscalee. With Velazquez committed to the streaking Wise Dan, Animal Kingdom was ridden in the Breeders’ by Rafael Bejarano. They found all sorts of trouble, but still wound up second – rallying late at 10-1 to get within 1 1/2 lengths of Wise Dan. Once more, Motion and Irwin aimed high and circled the 2013 World Cup as the goal – now with Arrowfield Stud as a partner. The sale meant Animal Kingdom was destined for stud duty in Australia, not Kentucky.
The connections sent their horse to Florida, signed up Joel Rosario for a two-race commitment, and promptly lost to Point Of Entry in the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Turf. The weird trip, Animal Kingdom jumped on the bridle and wound up in front early, produced as many questions as answers but did nothing to dissuade the international try. Animal Kingdom and Rosario dominated the Dubai race, laying waste to a big field and doubts about American horses in the world's richest race. Shortly thereafter, a deal with Darley was announced, meaning that Animal Kingdom would indeed stand in the Northern Hemisphere as a stallion. Then came the Ascot plans, the divorce between Team Valor and Motion, the renewed partnership with Velazquez . . . and then disappointment in the Queen Anne.
Though limited by injury, layoff and travel, Animal Kingdom's career included five wins and five seconds in 12 starts. The two sub-par races came in the Belmont, when he was bumped hard at the gate and ultimately hurt, and at Ascot.
“When he came back after the injury in the Belmont, you wanted him to show that kind of spark he had before,” said Motion. “In the Gulfstream allowance race, he did it very comfortably albeit against lesser horses. I certainly knew from the race that he was as good as I thought he was. That was the run that gave me confidence to run in the Breeders’ Cup.”
Motion's list of stable stars over the years include Better Talk Now, Shared Account, Aruna, Bullsbay, Film Maker, Toby's Corner, Broken Vow, Smart Bid and plenty of others. But there will only be one Animal Kingdom – ever.
“I’ve said many times this is the best horse I’ve ever trained and probably ever will train,” Motion said. “I’m not saying that to be corny. I’ve seen what the horse can do and I doubt I’ll have one that talented. I think it would take an extraordinary horse to think like this again. For me to have two horses in a lifetime that good would be extraordinary. Even if I have one, it’s going to be comparing apples and oranges. People are always going to want to compare and say ‘Is he as good as Animal Kingdom.’ I think that’s going to be very hard to do.”
Motion trains 100 or so horses based for the moment at Fair Hill, Delaware Park, Saratoga and Presque Isle Downs but at various times occupying stalls at Palm Meadows, Keeneland and Churchill Downs. Even though Animal Kingdom spent the past three months in another country, he's missed around the barn at Fair Hill, in the stable database, in the mind of his trainer.
“Certainly it’s a void,” Motion said. “How could you not (miss him). It’s a little depressing, but I’m extremely fortunate that I’ve got a lot of young horses and nice horses to come back to. I’m not looking for anyone to feel sorry for me. It’s been a big part of my life for the last three or four years.”
Animal Kingdom won the Kentucky Derby, finished second in essentially a hometown try at the Preakness, missed time for two separate injuries (one requiring surgery), finished second to the Horse of the Year in the Breeders’ Cup Mile, won the Dubai World Cup, made a historic try at Royal Ascot. Because of the horse, his trainer threw out the first pitch at an Orioles game, got interviewed on NPR’s Talk of the Nation and traveled the world. He’s got 8,800 Twitter followers. He’s been honored by the University of Arizona’s Racetrack Industry Program, the Maryland Horse Industry Board, the Turf Publicists of America.
“I’d like to think I tried to make the most of everything we had with him,” he said. “It’s not an era, but it’s the end of something.”