- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 17, 2011

ELKTON, Md. — There’s a reason some horses are long shots. It’s because pedigree or past performances say they can’t win a race.

That was Animal Kingdom in the Kentucky Derby. He had only raced four times and never on dirt, so he went off at odds of 21-1.

But instead of lagging behind, Animal Kingdom crushed the field down the stretch and cruised to victory. And while Graham Motion admitted being surprised, the trainer knows it was not an accident.

“He was the best horse, absolutely,” Motion said. “I think he did it very easily, in fact.”

Animal Kingdom posted a Beyer speed rating of 103 on May 7 at Churchill Downs, by far the highest of any horse entered in Saturday’s Preakness Stakes. Because of that performance in the Derby, he’ll likely be the favorite at Pimlico, too.

But one big question remains: Does anyone even know how good Animal Kingdom is?

Motion, who began training him late last year, isn’t even sure.

“Probably not. I think it’s questionable,” he said. “But I thought he was really impressive in the Derby. I thought the way he did it, it looked like he kind of won for fun to me.”

Since 2000, seven of the 11 Kentucky Derby winners haven’t even captured the Preakness to make a Triple Crown bid at the Belmont Stakes in June. Some, like Fusaichi Pegasus and Street Sense, had a legitimate chance based on how they performed in previous races.

Animal Kingdom remains something of a mystery. He beat the best 3-year-olds in the nation at Churchill Downs, but one-hit wonders are a pretty common tale —  see Giacomo, the 50-1 winner of the 2005 Derby.

“I haven’t seen enough yet to say this horse can win the Triple Crown,” said analyst Ray Paulick, publisher of the Paulick Report, who pointed to Animal Kingdom’s short track record that had included races only on synthetic and turf surfaces.

Motion knows the colt better than anyone else, and he’s seen a change in Animal Kingdom since capturing the Spiral Stakes in March.

“He’s matured dramatically; ever since he ran at Turfway, he’s changed significantly,” Motion said. “I don’t know if it’s confidence; I don’t know if it’s just him growing up. But he is a horse that in the last two months has really gone from being a boy to a man.”

That “man” romped to a 21/2-length victory in the Derby that wasn’t hard to explain.

“As far as the win, I think the horse is that good,” Motion said. “Johnny [Velazquez] gave him a beautiful ride, no doubt about it. But I think the horse did it very comfortably.”

It’s possible that Animal Kingdom has a long career filled with victories - regardless of the outcome at Pimlico. The timing of the Preakness coming just two weeks after the Derby is the biggest hurdle, Motion said, and it’s the reason why it would be unrealistic to expect Animal Kingdom to be even better than he was two weeks prior.

“To expect him to improve, I think that would be asking a lot,” he said. “But I think he showed he’s a brilliant horse and if he’s as brilliant a horse as I’d like to think he might be, I think he’ll handle it.”

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