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Jay Hovdey: Animal Kingdom has one more world to conquer
There is really no modern precedent for what Animal Kingdom would accomplish were he to win the Queen Anne Stakes on Tuesday at Royal Ascot. You’d need to go back to Philadelphia’s Bill Tilden breaking through to win Wimbledon in 1920, or to the summer of 1953 when Ben Hogan sailed across the pond to win his one and only try at the British Open.
Come Tuesday, it will have been 77 years to the day that the 1935 American Triple Crown winner Omaha lost the 1936 Ascot Gold Cup by a nose, at the end of 2 1/2 miles, so it’s about time the Yanks gave it another serious try.
American audiences will be familiar with such past Queen Anne winners as Goldikova and Barathea, both successful in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. Animal Kingdom is heavily favored to win the lion’s share of a purse totaling about $550,000, but he will need to tap dance the last quarter-mile on his hind legs if he is going to erase the memory of the most recent Queen Anne winner. Last year, Frankel blew the doors off the course with an 11-length victory.
“Animal Kingdom has been getting a lot of attention over here, and deservedly so,” said the Newmarket-based John Gosden, who won three races in a day at the 2012 Royal Ascot meet. “The opposition has melted a bit, but there’s plenty of place money offered, so we’ll try and get a bit of that. Somebody’s got to run against him,”
Gosden will be running Gregorian, winner of the recent Diomed Stakes at Epsom, and Elusive Kate, among the top-rated European fillies the past two seasons. She has not been seen since finishing third to Excelebration in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot last October.
“Gregorian’s won a Group 3 race, but he wouldn’t be good enough for this boy,” Gosden said, referring to the favorite. “As for the filly, her owner felt she belonged in the Group 1 race on the first day rather than the Group 2 race the next day against fillies. She’s been training nicely and she runs well fresh. I think I’ve got her at about 94 percent, if you want to be technical about it.”
Although a Queen Anne upset of Animal Kingdom would give Gosden a boost toward a defense of his British training championship, he cold-watered the idea.
“He has had a dress rehearsal over the track, and I hear they were happy with his work there over the straight mile,” Gosden noted. “It’s a different rhythm of race, but this is a horse who should have no problems with what we call a testing mile. His run in the Breeders’ Cup Mile was amazing, let alone all the other things he’s done. He’s a truly international horse.”
Kentucky Derby winners rarely fit such a description. Then again, how often have Epsom Derby winners tried to win anything over here?
As it turns out the answer is “very,” at least by comparison, beginning in 1923 when England’s Papyrus traveled by boat to the New World to face Kentucky Derby winner Zev in their epic October match at Belmont Park. Running slick shod over a muddy surface, Papyrus lost by five, but no one held it against him.
Others eventually followed. The 1968 Epsom Derby winner Sir Ivor, under Lester Piggott, capped the season by winning the Washington, D.C. International. The 1974 Epsom Derby winner Snow Knight did well enough in North America to win an Eclipse Award in 1975 as champion turf horse.
Later on came Quest for Fame, winner of the 1990 Epsom Derby, who finished third in the 1991 Breeders’ Cup Turf for Roger Charlton and third in the 1992 Breeders’ Cup Turf for Bobby Frankel. In 1992 the Irish colt Dr Devious won the Epsom Derby, but not before he took a swing at the Kentucky Derby for his new American owner, Sid Craig. Dr Devious flopped in Kentucky, won at Epsom a month later, then returned in the fall to finish fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Turf.
By the time he finished up the track in the 2000 running of the Manhattan Handicap on the Belmont grass, the 1998 Epsom Derby winner High-Rise was well past his prime. The same could not be said of 2001 Epsom winner Galileo, who brought star appeal to the 2001 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Belmont Park, but could not handle the dirt.
As for High Chapparal, who won England’s greatest prize in 2002, he took the summer off, finished third in the Arc, then won the Breeders’ Cup Turf over deep going at Arlington Park. In the same race one year later, on a fast track at Santa Anita, High Chaparral finished in a dead heat for the win with Johar. As a result, High Chaparral was twice voted champion American turf male.
The most recent precedent for a Kentucky Derby winner taking on a European challenge anywhere near the level of Royal Ascot occurred in October 1962, when Carry Back flew to Paris for the Arc de Triomphe.
Carry Back won the 1961 Derby and the Preakness and later beat older runners in the Trenton Handicap, then as a 4-year-old he won the Met Mile and the Whitney and defeated both Kelso and Beau Purple in the Monmouth Handicap.
This should have been enough for anyone, except for Jack Price, Carry Back’s breeder, owner, and trainer. Price was a colorful former bookmaker and media quote machine who rubbed the U.S. racing establishment the wrong way and loved it. Faced with criticism for attempting such an international folly, Price conceded, “They’re saying that I’m crazy to be going over to run in the Arc, and maybe they’re right.”
Once in Paris there was an issue with horseshoes (see Papyrus), but in the race itself Carry Back comported himself with honor. After being taken back off a slow pace, he came on with a rush to excite his newfound French fans, but then could not stay the full 2,400-meter trip and ended up 10th of 24, less than six lengths behind the winner Soltikoff, who set a stakes record.
“They cheered him in the jam-packed walking ring,” wrote Whitney Tower of Carry Back’s Arc in Sports Illustrated. “They cheered him under a beautiful cloudless sky as he walked proudly in front of more than 50,000 horseplayers in the post parade. And they cheered him as he cantered boldly off . . .”
Animal Kingdom has transcended his Kentucky-bred portfolio to become a four-legged version of the United Nations, with additional ties in one way or another to Brazil, Germany, Australia, Dubai, and England, not to mention Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, through jockeys John Velazquez and Joel Rosario.
Still, it will be a grand sight to see the Kentucky Derby winner flying down Ascot’s straightaway to kick off the royal meet, with Her Majesty in the stands clutching a fat winning ticket on the All-American hero.