04/26/2013 11:05AM

Animal Kingdom to be ridden by Velazquez at Royal Ascot

Tom Keyser
Animal Kingdom will have a new rider for his final career start at Royal Ascot.

His familiarity with both the horse and the course have landed John Velazquez back on Animal Kingdom when the 5-year-old makes the final start of his career at Royal Ascot in June.

Velazquez, who rode Animal Kingdom to victory in the 2011 Kentucky Derby, replaces Joel Rosario, who guided Animal Kingdom to victory in the $10 million Dubai World Cup at Meydan on March 30.

Velazquez has not ridden Animal Kingdom since Feb. 2012 when he guided him to an allowance race victory at Gulfstream Park. Animal Kingdom was sidelined until last fall and when he returned in the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Santa Anita, Velazquez was committed to ride Wise Dan, who beat Animal Kingdom that day.

Velazquez was aboard Point of Entry when he beat Animal Kingdom in the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap on Feb. 9.

Velazquez has ridden the last three years at Royal Ascot and in 2009 won a pair of five-furlong turf sprints for trainer Wesley Ward.

Velazquez has agreed to travel to England to breeze Animal Kingdom prior to his race at Royal Ascot.

“Johnny knows the horse better than any other rider and he has had success at Royal Ascot,” trainer Graham Motion said in a press release issued by Team Valor International, the syndicate that owns Animal Kingdom. “He won on a straightaway at Royal Ascot and if we decide to go in the [Group 1] Queen Anne Stakes on opening day up the straight, that experience figures to come in handy.”

Motion and Team Valor are deciding between the Queen Anne, a one-mile race, on opening day or the Prince of Wales’s Stakes at 1 1/4 miles on the second day of the Ascot meet.

However, in the press release Team Valor president Barry Irwin seemed to indicate the Queen Anne was the race of choice.

“No American jockey is riding better than Joel right now,” Irwin said. “We thought he gave a peerless performance in the World Cup. But we don’t think it would be fair for the jockey to ride him on a straightaway when neither jockey nor horse had done it before.

“Dropping from a mile and a quarter around turns on a synthetic track to running uphill on a straight course on grass is quite a transition for any horse, especially at this level. So the decision to go with a jockey that knows the horse and the course made the job easier. It was a difficult decision.”

Velazquez has missed the last three weeks due to a fractured rib suffered in a spill at Aqueduct on April 7. He is expected to return to race-riding on Wednesday at Belmont. He is scheduled to ride Dreaming of Julia in the May 3 Kentucky Oaks and Verrazano in the May 4 Kentucky Derby.