10/19/2012 3:46PM

Hovdey: Entering Breeders' Cup off layoff difficult, not impossible

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Barbara D. Livingston
Animal Kingdom, pointing to the Breeders’ Cup Mile, has not run since Feb. 18 at Gulfstream.

The intrigue of the Breeders’ Cup lies in its variety, in its heady mix of ownerships, jockey styles, breeding pools, and geographic identities. However, nothing stimulates conversation more than the hubris of a Thoroughbred trainer trying to pull off a mini-miracle on the national stage.

Graham Motion is in the midst of such an adventure with Animal Kingdom, winner of the 2011 Kentucky Derby for the Team Valor syndicate. The big, raw-boned chestnut followed his Derby win with an admirable second in the Preakness, then came to grief in the Belmont Stakes when he was nearly knocked down at the start and came out of the race injured.

Since then, Animal Kingdom has been more Garbo than racehorse. He surfaced once in a little turf race at Gulfstream Park last February and won with the flair befitting a Derby winner, then promptly hurt himself again. Fast forward to last month, when Team Valor and Motion declared their intention to run Animal Kingdom in the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Santa Anita Park on Nov.  3, 259 days downstream from his win back in February.

There are no easy spots on the Breeders’ Cup menu, and the Mile is always very salty. Animal Kingdom figures to face, at the very least, such quality American competitors as Wise Dan, Little Mike, and Obviously, plus Excelebration, Moonlight Cloud, and whatever else comes over from Europe. If Animal Kingdom pulls it off, or even runs well enough to be a factor at the end, he will take his place among a select group of Breeders’ Cup runners who hit the target from a long way off.

Then again, more have failed than not. In 2002, the Godolphin team tried to win the Classic at Arlington Park with E Dubai, who had not run since winning the Brooklyn Handicap in early July. He beat one horse. John Shirreffs tackled the 2004 Breeders’ Cup Distaff with Hollywood Story off a similar layoff – and got a similar result. Bobby Frankel gave little Megahertz five months off between the end of May and the 2004 Filly and Mare Turf at Lone Star on Oct. 20, but she floundered on the soft Texas ground.

Frankel had better luck with Badge of Silver, who won the San Gabriel Handicap at Santa Anita on Jan. 1, 2006, and then disappeared from view. He resurfaced at Churchill Downs in November to finish third in the Mile behind Miesque’s Approval, missing second by only a head. And although Zaftig had not run since winning the 2008 Acorn Stakes at Belmont in early June for Jimmy Jerkens, she did well to run third in the 2008 Filly and Mare Sprint at the same track 4 1/2 months later.

The valiant effort award – as far as lengthy layoffs are concerned – goes to David Milch’s Gilded Time, winner of the 1992 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Gulfstream Park. A variety of physical problems kept him off the track through most of his 3-year-old campaign, but as the fall of 1993 approached trainer Darrell Vienna began gearing the handsome chestnut for a comeback in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Santa Anita.

“The history of racing is so attached to the idea of preparing horses to run in a race by running in another race,” Vienna said. “I’m not arguing against that, but I don’t think it’s the only way, and don’t necessarily think it’s the best way, at least not for all horses.

“So I’ve always liked a horse with a long space between his races,” he said. “I think you have a much better idea where your horse is. You’re really modulating the amount of work he gets, where in a race you can’t really control how much he does.”

When Gilded Time went postward in the 1993 Breeders’ Cup Sprint it had been 372 days since his last race. Making his debut that day as a 3-year-old, he finished third, beaten a neck and half a length by Cardmania and Meafara.

“I truly thought that it was more of an advantage than a disadvantage not having run on top of the race,” Vienna said. “It also helped that even as a 2-year-old Gilded Time was beating 3-year-olds and older horses in his works before he even started running. He was precocious, composed, and over-brimming with talent. It was his physical defects that defeated him, not other horses.”

Ross Fenstermaker set a high bar in 1985, when he stopped on Precisionist in June after running second in the 1 1/4-mile Hollywood Gold Cup and pointed him specifically for the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Aqueduct on Nov. 2, 132 days later, without plans for a prep. With a picture postcard ride from Chris McCarron, they turned the trick, beating Smile by three-quarters of a length. Smile won the Sprint the following year.

Still, the patron saint for all those Breeders’ Cup horses coming off the bench remains Da Hoss, who in 1998 at Churchill Downs won the Breeders’ Cup Mile for a second time. His first came in 1996 at Woodbine, where a 4-year-old Da Hoss beat Spinning World (winner of the Mile in 1997 at Hollywood Park). Da Hoss missed the entire 1997 season with injuries and was ready to return in the late spring of 1998, when trainer Michael Dickinson had to stop once again.

“When we got him back in training that summer, we thought he was moving very well, and better than he had been when he won at Woodbine,” Dickinson said. “We thought we had the best horse, and he’d already won the race before.”

So it was just that easy. Dickinson was inclined to run Da Hoss right into the Mile off the unthinkable two-year layoff, but then decided to use a small race on closing day at Colonial Downs in northern Virginia, not far from where Da Hoss called home on Maryland’s eastern shore. He ran and won as Dickinson envisioned.

“I don’t think we needed it,” Dickinson said. “I wasn’t worried about his fitness. It was more for my peace of mind, just to eliminate any ring-rustiness because he hadn’t been on the track for two years. That, and we also felt we had to send a message to the Breeders’ Cup selection committee that he should be in the field.”

Four weeks after his Colonial comeback, Da Hoss defeated Hawksley Hill by a head in the Mile, cementing his place in Breeders’ Cup history.

“I always said we won the race because we trained the best horse,” Dickinson said. “If you start there you’re in good shape. I give Animal Kingdom a good chance because Graham is a very good trainer, and Animal Kingdom is a good-looking horse who has already won the Derby. Can’t come any higher than that.”