06/13/2011 12:26PM

Animal Kingdom's Summer Schedule


Say what you want about Barry Irwin, it is clear he is smart, and a realist.

Irwin, head of Team Valor International, which owns Animal Kingdom, said before Saturday’s Belmont Stakes that he was looking at running his Kentucky Derby winner and Preakness runner up on the turf this summer in either the Grade 1 Arlington Million or the Grade 1 Secretariat at Arlington Park. This was an intriguing plan. Animal Kingdom is already a major stakes winner on dirt, and a stakes winner on synthetic (he won the Spiral on Polytrack at Turfway Park prior to the Derby). The desire to also have him become a major stakes winner on grass harkens back to the old days when good horses actually proved what they could do on the track under a variety of conditions, not in media releases full of spin.

But then in the Belmont, Animal Kingdom was all but eliminated from contention only a couple of strides into the race when severely squeezed back. He actually did extremely well just to make that big run around the far turn while also racing against the grain of a speed-favoring track. But even if Animal Kingdom acquitted himself admirably under impossible circumstances Saturday, he still finished sixth. He still lost. The only good news for him is that Preakness winner Shackleford squandered an opportunity in the Belmont to take firm control of the 3-year-old division, tiring after setting the pace to finish fifth, thus leaving this division up for grabs.

The morning after the Belmont, Irwin had this to say about Animal Kingdom to the NYRA press staff: “We want to make this horse the champion. I really thought we were going to win the Belmont or at least run second. He’s probably the leader of the 3-year-old class right now, but he’s no cinch to be the champion, so I think we’re going to have to put him where he can solidify that. We’re going to have to take a look at the Travers.” Colleague Jay Privman has subsequently reported that the Haskell at Monmouth Park on July 30 is also in play for Animal Kingdom. The Haskell comes four weeks before the Travers, run at Saratoga on August 27. The Arlington Million and Secretariat fall right in between these two events, with those races set for August 13.

While it is always nice to see accomplished 3-year-olds square off in truly special races such as the Travers and Haskell, it is still a shame that what happened to Animal Kingdom in the Belmont is now forcing Irwin to re-think his colt's schedule. The idea to try the Kentucky Derby winner on grass, to give Animal Kingdom the opportunity to demonstrate his versatility, was (and this word sounds too quaint for the occasion) sporting. But it might have to be abandoned.

As an aside here, I actually think that if Animal Kingdom were to win the Arlington Million, it would be just as meaningful as a victory in the Travers or Haskell. The Secretariat? No, because that race is restricted to 3-year-olds. But a victory by Animal Kingdom in the Arlington Million would be noteworthy because, aside from the surface, it would mean he defeated older horses.

Irwin just can’t risk the chance that enough Eclipse Award voters will see the Arlington Million vis a vis the Travers and Haskell the way I do. And even if this whole thing comes down to the Breeders’ Cup Classic like it seems destined to, Irwin can’t risk Shackleford gaining divisional position on him by possibly winning the Haskell and/or Travers. So instead of trying something special this summer, I understand why Animal Kingdom probably has to take the more conventional route and stay on dirt. Don’t get me wrong. That’s not a bad thing at all. It’s just not as interesting as things could have been.