06/13/2013 11:57AM

Animal Kingdom in pursuit of history at Royal Ascot

Barbara D. Livingston
Animal Kingdom makes the final start of his career Tuesday in the Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot. He has been stabled in England since early April, a week after he won the Dubai World Cup.

When Animal Kingdom made his debut at Arlington Park on Sept. 18, 2010, there was little to separate him from thousands of other young horses. But if things go well in his final race and he wins the Queen Anne Stakes on June 18 at the Royal Ascot meeting in England, he will have separated himself from every other Thoroughbred to have set foot on a racetrack.

No one is proclaiming Animal Kingdom the best horse of all time. But by winning the Queen Anne, one of the most important one-mile turf races in the world, a race dating to the mid-19th century and won last year by superhorse Frankel, Animal Kingdom would enter uncharted territory. Animal Kingdom won the 2011 Kentucky Derby, and when he won the $10 million Dubai World Cup on March 30, becoming the first American horse to win the event since it was moved to a synthetic track at Meydan in 2010, he joined Silver Charm as the only Derby-World Cup winners. Victory in the Queen Anne – and no American-trained horse has won it − would give Animal Kingdom a Derby win on dirt in North America, a World Cup win over a synthetic surface in Asia, and a turf win in Europe at Royal Ascot on one of the racing world’s grandest stages.

Royal Ascot lies distant from Animal Kingdom’s roots, but that fits the horse he has become and, in fact, was bred to be. A week after the World Cup, Animal Kingdom left Dubai, but not for home. He has three owners now: Team Valor International bred and raced him before selling a share early this year to the Arrowfield Stud of Australia, and Sheikh Mohammed’s Darley bought into him this spring. Animal Kingdom goes on to stud in Australia later this year, and when he finally returns to the United States, it will be for a Northern Hemisphere breeding season at Darley.

His pedigree tilts heavily to the international: He is by the Brazilian-bred turf miler Leroidesanimaux and is out of the German mare Dalicia, with many family members from England and France. It is not a fashionable American dirt pedigree, a major reason Animal Kingdom left home this spring and will first stand in Australia, but overseas breeders might take to it, especially if Animal Kingdom wins a stallion-making race like the Queen Anne.

For now, Animal Kingdom has no real home. For more than two months, he has been learning to train and, his connections hope, to race in the English style. Animal Kingdom is the solid early betting favorite, and there is nothing like a Frankel awaiting him in this year’s edition. But the Queen Anne will be different from any race Animal Kingdom has contested. It is run down a straight, undulating course, and Animal Kingdom, like nearly all American horses, only has raced left-handed on a flat track.

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Managing Animal Kingdom’s transition is trainer Graham Motion, who was born in England and lived there until he was 16. Motion has been wonderfully successful training like an American. Now he is training an American horse to win one of England’s best races.

“When I run in the Breeders’ Cup I’m always talked about as the ex-Englishman in the English papers,” Motion said. “They claim me as one of their own. But this is an American group, and we’re considered Americans. This is what makes it interesting, trying to do things like this. For me, it’s a great challenge.”

An American-trained horse has never won a Group 1 race at Royal Ascot, and only two Americans have won a Group 1 race anywhere in Europe: Fourstars Allstar, who shipped to win the 1991 Irish 2000 Guineas, and Reigh Count, the 1928 Kentucky Derby winner who spent a season in England and won the 1929 Coronation Cup at Epsom. Reigh Count also finished second in the Gold Cup at Ascot but fared poorly in his attempts at straight-course racing. Omaha, the Triple Crown winner in 1935, embarked upon a four-race campaign in England as a 4-year-old in which he was a close second in the Princess of Wales’s and the Ascot Gold Cup. 

Trainer Ken McPeek sent Hard Buck to finish second in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes during Ascot’s July meeting in 2004, but trainer Wesley Ward has pioneered a recent surge of American runners at Royal Ascot, sending Strike the Tiger in 2009 to become the first American-trained winner at the meeting. McPeek, Carl O’Callaghan, and Todd Pletcher have followed Ward over, but all their runners started in 2-year-old races or sprints. In early summer, American 2-year-olds tend to be more advanced and harder-trained than overseas horses, and the best turf sprinters in the world reside in Australia or East Asia. The Queen Anne is longer and more prestigious, and European turf milers are, for good reason, automatically assumed superior to Americans.

“This is much different than going to Dubai, running around an oval on a synthetic track similar to what he’s run on before,” Motion said. “That was very comparable to how we’d race him in America. Other than from a fitness point of view, it didn’t take a lot of unusual preparation.”

The Queen Anne was one of two Royal Ascot options for Animal Kingdom, with the Prince of Wales’s Stakes also considered. The Prince of Wales’s is run around right-handed bends and has uphill sections, and it plays more like a 1 1/2-mile race in the United States than its raw, 1 1/4-mile distance. Animal Kingdom’s lone start at 1 1/2 miles, in the 2011 Belmont, produced a sixth-place finish, though he emerged from the Belmont with an injury.

The Queen Anne, run at a mile, also is considered a long-playing race, falling more solidly into Animal Kingdom’s wheelhouse than the Prince of Wales’s, though Animal Kingdom never has won at a distance shorter than 1 1/8 miles.

When Animal Kingdom arrived at the stables of trainer David Lanigan in Lambourn about 70 miles west of central London, the trip to Dubai and his powerful race in the desert had marked him.

“We really didn’t do too much with him the first couple weeks except give him a chance to get over the trip,” Motion said. “You could certainly tell he had a race in Dubai. He was drawn up. He’d traveled a lot and had a tough race.”

The plan, unconventional as it is, always was to go straight from Dubai to England and prep there for Ascot. The question was with whom and how, exactly. Motion had never met Lanigan, but the pair trains for the Niarchos family, whose racing manager, Alan Cooper, suggested Motion contact Lanigan. Lanigan’s stables sit at a remove from the bustle of the busy English training centers, like Newmarket, and Motion wanted that kind of privacy. Lanigan and Motion spoke a couple of times before the World Cup, and when Animal Kingdom won and the England trip was imminent, Motion phoned once more: “Are you still OK with this?”

Facing the logistically complex project of training a horse from across an ocean, Motion waited for Animal Kingdom to recover from the World Cup before traveling overseas to determine how Animal Kingdom would go about his day-to-day. European trainers with the means to do so are presented with an array of training options. In Lambourn alone there are many different training courses − called gallops − of varying lengths, shapes, and inclines.

“Training him every day [in England] is so much different,” Motion said. “We still basically train on an oval at Fair Hill. The first challenge was finding the gallop that would be the least different for him. I realized that I had to change things, but I didn’t want to make it too severe. All the gallops are straight and go uphill, but I found one, called the Long Gallop, that had some bending in it and didn’t go that far uphill.

“The first few times we took him out, he was definitely confused,” he said. “To go up the side of a hill in a straight line, it was so foreign to what he’d ever done before, and you could tell. He was off the bridle. It really wasn’t until the first time I worked him he finally got on the bridle.”

PHOTO: Animal Kingdom exercises over a turf course on the property of David Lanigan in Lambourn, England. [Amy Lanigan]

Once Animal Kingdom became accustomed to his regular all-weather gallop, he was introduced to one of Lanigan’s private turf gallops, where he now trains several times a week.

Motion, who is married with two children, has gone from Fair Hill to Lambourn every other week, flying out Sunday night, arriving Monday morning, spending Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday with the horse, and coming home Wednesday night. He downplays the taxing routine, but Motion also has a full complement of horses to oversee in the United States.

Motion’s first trip to Lambourn with an American racing star came in 1987, when he accompanied the elite steeplechaser Flatterer for trainer Jonathan Sheppard, Motion’s mentor. Flatterer would finish second in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, England’s most important race over jumps, but that English invasion 26 years ago unfolded in an entirely different manner than this year’s. Flatterer flew just before his race, doing his preparation in Camden, S.C., and his final workout at Garden State Racetrack in New Jersey while on his way to the airport.

That last-minute approach is the one favored by Ward, who once again has several 2-year-olds lined up to fly from Atlanta five days before this year’s Royal Ascot meet begins. The late shipping date, Ward said, allows him to monitor weather. In 2010, Ward scratched all his intended Ascot runners when heavy rain turned the course too soft. Last year, with the expensive 2010 episode in mind, Ward called off the Ascot trip at the last moment when wet conditions appeared certain to prevail.

Ward’s horses will be stabled at Ascot, and they will have nothing remotely like the prep work under foreign conditions that Animal Kingdom has performed. Such methods, Ward said, have worked well in the past. Straight-course racing hasn’t troubled his Royal Ascot runners, and the ship itself has not proved taxing.

“It will be interesting for me to see what happens with Animal Kingdom, since he’s gone over there kind of early,” Ward said. “If I called the shots, I’d have liked to see him right back in the environment he’s used to, with his own trainer, Graham, having a cup of coffee and doing it like that. In the end, if he’s good enough, he’s good enough.”

While Ward has run only 2-year-olds and sprinters in England, trainer Ken McPeek sent Noble’s Promise to finish a close fifth in the one-mile St. James’s Palace Stakes at the 2010 Royal Ascot meet. In 2004, he almost won the Group 1 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes over 1 1/2 miles with Hard Buck during Ascot’s second summer meeting in late July. The St. James’s Palace, for 3-year-olds, is run on a different Ascot mile course than the Queen Anne and has one right-handed turn; Hard Buck raced around two right-handed bends.

“All my horses have done fine there,” McPeek said. “The 2-year-olds have handled the straight, but Hard Buck did fine, too. It’s not that hard to get them to change direction. It’s actually quite natural to them.”

McPeek’s perspective, however, skews from the typical American’s. His Magdalena Farm in Kentucky, where he has prepared many overseas shippers, has right-handed, European-style turf gallops. Hard Buck already had made the transition from South America, where he was born and raised and began his career, to the Northern Hemisphere, and McPeek sent him to England about two weeks before his race, training him right-handed and up hills at Newmarket.

Motion walked the Ascot straightway with the track’s clerk of the course on one of his earlier visits this fall. His fourth visit of the spring culminated in a trip from Lambourn to Ascot for Animal Kingdom’s major racecourse workout, ridden by John Velazquez, who had flown from New York the night before.

Velazquez, who won the Derby on Animal Kingdom and rode him throughout the Triple Crown, was aboard Animal Kingdom for the first time since the winter of 2012: When Animal Kingdom returned from an injury layoff in the Breeders’ Cup Mile last fall, Velazquez had a call on Wise Dan, who won the race. This winter, Velazquez was committed to ride Orb to victory in the Florida Derby the same day as the Dubai World Cup.

Joel Rosario rode Animal Kingdom in Dubai, but Motion and Team Valor decided turning to Velazquez for the Queen Anne made more sense. Not only does Velazquez know the horse, he knows the course, having ridden more than any American jockey at Ascot. The surroundings, the moment, won’t unsettle Velazquez, who downplays the challenges of riding a foreign course. The current crop of English jockeys doesn’t ride so much differently from Americans, Velazquez said. The shape of the races, the feel of the going, the ups and downs − no big deal.

“The horse has to like the course, and that’s it,” Velazquez said. “The big thing is that this is a straight mile. He’s never done that, but he worked really well on it.”

LIFETIME PPs: Animal Kingdom's career past performances (PDF)

Motion and his family flew in 10 days before the Queen Anne, and Motion will watch his horse – his Derby winner, his World Cup winner – train for a few final days. Ascot marks the end of an era in another way, too. Animal Kingdom, managed through his splendid career by Team Valor’s mercurial president, Barry Irwin, is the last Team Valor horse under Motion’s care. The rest were moved to trainer Rick Mettee after Team Valor and Motion announced a split in April. The official explanation was Irwin’s desire to have a private trainer. Some suspect a deeper rift.

Motion, cool and reserved, and Irwin, brash and outspoken, formed an odd couple, but they share a more global perspective than most American connections, and their campaigning of Animal Kingdom always has been daring: A Derby run without any previous dirt experience; a Breeders’ Cup Mile attempt after a layoff of more than eight months and with no turf-stakes experience; the trip to Dubai, delayed a year because of injury; and now England.

Irwin says he eagerly awaits Animal Kingdom’s attempt to meet another challenge. But for him, when it is done, it is done.

“Our partnership only kept this horse in training as a 5-year-old because we ourselves wanted to find out exactly what he was capable of doing,” Irwin wrote in an email. “I think after the Queen Anne we will have seen enough to be satisfied. I have been able to survive in this game because I try never to look back. I see no reason to change now.”

It will be difficult for Motion not to look back. He wears his heart on his sleeve, and Animal Kingdom’s departure will hit him differently than it does the horse’s owners. Motion has been with the horse for more than three years, watching him become the horse everyone will be watching at Royal Ascot.

“I try not to think about it too much,” Motion said. “I don’t think I’ll ever get to do anything like this again. It’s been a lot to take on, but at the same time, you’re kind of living a dream. I’ve always hoped I’d have a horse to take to England to run in a prestigious race. I never imagined having a horse of this caliber to do it.”


A sampling of how American runners have fared at Royal Ascot in recent years.

Horse Trainer Year Race Result
Gentlemans Code Wesley Ward 2011 Windsor Castle  4th
Bridgetown Todd Pletcher 2011 King's Stand  12th
More Than Real Todd Pletcher 2011 Coronation  11th
Noble's Promise Ken McPeek 2010 St. James's Palace  5th
Kinsale King Carl O'Callaghan 2010 Golden Jubilee 3rd
Strike The Tiger Wesley Ward 2009 Windsor Castle  1st
Jealous Again Wesley Ward 2009 Queen Mary  1st
Cannonball Wesley Ward 2009 Golden Jubilee  2nd
Yogaroo Wesley Ward 2009 Norfolk  9th
Aegean Wesley Ward 2009 Albany  9th