03/22/2012 2:27PM

Hovdey: Pair of Kentucky Derby spots there for taking

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Patrick Lang/Lang Photography
Animal Kingdom earns a spot in the 2011 Kentucky Derby with a win in the Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park.

The Triple Crown season starts for real this weekend. How do I know? Follow the money.

On Saturday, at Turfway Park in northern Kentucky, the Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes offers a purse of $500,000. On Sunday, just down the road from El Paso and across the New Mexico state line, there will be $800,000 up for grabs in the Sunland Park Derby. Is this a great country or what?

The winners this weekend will be assured of two things. Because of television coverage, they will have an automatic following among fans tuned to all things Triple Crown. NBCSports is kicking off its Jockey Club-sponsored racing coverage with the Vinery Spiral, while HRTV and TVG will be on the Sunland Park scene with a package picked up by regional outlets.

In addition, the winners of the Sunland Derby and Spiral, both graded events, will be welcomed into the starting field for the Kentucky Derby with open arms and no further questions asked. It will not matter how fast or slow they run this weekend, or if they win by a nose or by a pole. The winning purse is all that counts.

This is the way it works these days, when for better or worse the culture and conditions virtually mandate a field of 20 for the Derby. Any doubts that there will be two full gates on the first Saturday in May were further erased when Churchill Downs officials decided to add an also-eligible list to the Derby field for the first time this year.

There was a time, and not too long ago, that owners and trainers who were lucky enough to win the Sunland Park Derby or the Spiral might have thought twice about making the leap to the Kentucky Derby. Nevermore, since two names erased any doubts that a Derby winner can come from anywhere.

The 2009 Derby winner Mine That Bird was fourth that year in the Sunland Derby, while 2011 Derby winner Animal Kingdom became a stakes winner in the Spiral. They are the exceptions that prove there are no rules, other than the fact at this time of year when a young horse is approaching his top form in late March chances are he will be heard from wherever he runs in May or even into early June.

Both Mine That Bird and Animal Kingdom, for all the thrills they provided during their Triple Crown adventures, are part of a disturbing Kentucky Derby trend. Setting aside the durable gelding Funny Cide, who made 31 starts after winning the Derby, and the sad case of Barbaro, who suffered what were eventually fatal injuries in the Preakness, the other 10 Kentucky Derby winners since 2000 won just 11 races among them in the wake of their big day at Churchill Downs.

This includes Animal Kingdom’s comeback win last month at Gulfstream Park, his first race since requiring surgery for an injury sustained in the Belmont. Mine That Bird – like recent Derby winners Super Saver and Monarchos – never won another race.

Now retired to the New Mexico farm of co-owner Mark Allen, Mine That Bird was never the most correct individual in terms of conformation, and his smallish stature worked against him as the rest of his generation matured. He might have flourished on a lesser circuit, but the burden of being a Derby winner pushed his people to swing for the fences in major events from coast to coast, with Wayne Lukas calling the training shots after the horse turned 4.

Animal Kingdom also may be a victim of his physical nature. He was a big, robust 3-year-old, a throwback to a creature of a different era. At 4, he is even more imposing, described by his trainer, Graham Motion, as probably the biggest good horse he’s ever handled.

Such dimensions can be both a blessing and a curse. Animal Kingdom experienced a minor setback during his recovery period from his post-Belmont Stakes surgery, but he seemed on course for a start in the Dubai World Cup when he was sidelined again with a fracture that is serious only in its timing.

To their credit, neither Animal Kingdom nor Mine That Bird were flukes, at least in the sense that they did not immediately sink from view before the glow of Derby glory faded.

With a better trip, perhaps a step here or there, Mine That Bird might have caught Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness, while in the Belmont Stakes an honest Calvin Borel took the rap for asking the little gelding to move way too soon as happens to many riders not familiar with Big Sandy.

As for Animal Kingdom, last year he did everything right in the Preakness but still could not quite catch Shackleford, who ran the race of his life. And in the Belmont, Animal Kingdom’s performance in the face of severe interference right after the start needs no apology. It’s why they call them Thoroughbreds.

Twice the Appeal gets a distance test

The winner of the 2011 Sunland Park Derby went on to compete in the Kentucky Derby but finished 10th, beaten about 10 lengths, by Animal Kingdom. Twice the Appeal, a son of Successful Appeal, went postward in the Derby at a dramatically underlayed 11.90-1, which was easily explained by the presence of Borel in the saddle. Calvin was going for his fourth Derby win in the past five years.

Jeff Bonde needed to give Twice the Appeal the rest of the year off before he could return in January at Oaklawn Park. He tried the Santa Anita Handicap but could not stay with Ron the Greek & Co., so now Twice the Appeal will run on Saturday at Santa Anita in the $100,000 Tokyo City Cup at 1 1/2 miles on the main track.

Give racing officials credit for trying, but the idea of long-distance main-track races for horses of class does not seem to be catching on, even with the Breeders’ Cup Marathon dangling at the end of the season. It hardly helps when the Brits and French come over and refer to the Marathon and its 12-furlong preps as “middle-distance” events. La-de-da. Still, two and a half minutes of racing entertainment is always welcome.