05/07/2011 6:55PM

Kentucky Derby: Animal Kingdom outfinishes Nehro

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Barbara D. Livingston
Animal Kingdom and John Velazquez win the Kentucky Derby.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The twists and turns of racing were never more evident than in Saturday's 137th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, when trainer Graham Motion, who seemingly lost his best chance for a Derby win earlier in the week when Toby's Corner was withdrawn, and jockey John Velazquez, who seemingly was to sit this one out when Uncle Mo was scratched on Friday, combined forces to win with the 20-1 shot Animal Kingdom, who was making his first start on dirt.

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At the same time, the result had to be a crushing blow to jockey Robby Albarado, who on Friday was replaced as the rider aboard Animal Kingdom when Velazquez became available when Uncle Mo came out. Albarado had broken his nose earlier in the week, and Barry Irwin, the head of the Team Valor syndicate that owns Animal Kingdom, on Friday said he and his partners made the decision to replace Albarado because he did not ride that day.

"It was a tough call because I really like Robby," Irwin said. "But this horse has 20 partners. There's a lot invested. And it turned out to be the right thing to do."

Velazquez had to go back to a jockeys' room that included Albarado, and it was obvious this win, Velazquez's first in the Derby, was a touch bittersweet for him.

"I do feel really bad for Robby," Velazquez said.

Motion, 46, a transplanted Englishman who has been training in this country for nearly two decades, was devastated when he found Toby's Corner to have unspecified lameness on Monday morning at his Fair Hill training center in Maryland.

"I about fell over," Motion said. "That's a tough blow the week of the Derby."

He said the Derby result was "just extraordinary."

"This horse was so powerful today," Motion said. "I didn't know for sure he would handle the switch over to dirt. This is a very special horse."

Animal Kingdom ($43.80) collared Nehro inside the sixteenth pole and went on to win by 2 3/4 lengths. Nehro edged Mucho Macho Man by a neck for second. Shackleford, who set the pace until the top of the stretch, was fourth, and was followed, in order, by Master of Hounds, Santiva, Brilliant Speed, Dialed In, Pants On Fire, Twice The Appeal, Soldat, Stay Thirsty, Derby Kitten, Decisive Moment, Archarcharch, Midnight Interlude, Twinspired, Watch Me Go, and Comma to the Top.

Archarcharch had his saddle slip under jockey Jon Court early in the race, then was pulled up after the race and had to be removed from the track in the horse ambulance.

Dr. Larry Bramlage, the on-call veterinarian for the American Association of Equine Practitioners, said Archarcharch had a splint put on his left front leg but walked willingly into the ambulance. He said X-xays revealed a lateral condylar fracture, which Bramlage said would require surgery, but he said horses often return from similar injuries to race again.

"This is something we do all the time," he said.

Despite the absence of a standout name in this year's Derby, a record crowd of 164,858 was announced as the attendance, beating the previous record of 163,628, set for the 100th Derby in 1974. The race was so wide-open that the favorite, Dialed In, was 5-1, even without Uncle Mo, the morning line's second choice, in the race.

Animal Kingdom covered 1 1/4 miles on a track rated fast in 2:02.04.

Animal Kingdom thus heads to Pimlico, home of the May 21 Preakness Stakes, with the only chance among this year's crop of 3-year-olds to sweep the Triple Crown. No horse has won the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes since Affirmed in 1978. That is the longest drought of Triple Crown winners since the Triple Crown was first won by Sir Barton in 1919.

If Dialed In comes back and wins the Preakness, he would earn a $5.5 million bonus from MI Developments for having also won the Holy Bull and Florida Derby.

Irwin, in a different partnership, finished second in the 1997 Derby with Captain Bodgit. Irwin, 68, is a former writer for Daily Racing Form who turned to racehorse partnerships 25 years ago.

"I'm surprised," Irwin said of the result. "You're always hopeful. This horse had a lot of history he was bucking. And I know a lot about history."

Irwin pointed out that Animal Kingdom was the first horse to win the Derby off a six-week layoff since Needles in 1956 and the first horse ever to win without a prior start on dirt.

Animal Kingdom was bred by Team Valor. His sire is the turf star Leroidesanimaux.

Animal Kingdom's four starts were well spaced, two at age 2, to this year. He defeated maidens in his second start last fall at Keeneland when trained by Wayne Catalano. He was then turned over to Motion, who at the start of this year became the sole trainer of United States-based horses for Team Valor.

"I got tired of other trainers lying to me," Irwin said. "I wanted a guy to tell me the truth."

In his first start this year, Animal Kingdom finished second in an allowance race on the turf at Gulfstream. He then won the Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park on March 26 on a Polytrack surface.

Not until last weekend, though, was the decision made to go in the Derby. It hinged on Animal Kingdom's workout on the Churchill Downs dirt surface, and he passed it flawlessly, ironically with Albarado at the controls that morning.

"Believe me, we will find a way to make this up to Robby," Irwin said.

A field of 19, reduced from the maximum of 20 by the scratch of Uncle Mo, went to the post under sunny skies on a cool, breezy afternoon.

Shackleford broke quickest of all and led through surprisingly moderate fractions of 23.74 seconds for the opening quarter-mile, 48.63 seconds for a half-mile, and 1:13.40 for six furlongs. Animal Kingdom was mid-pack, between horses, covered up much like a turf horse.

Velazquez was able to find room between horses, while three paths wide, on the far turn, then took Animal Kingdom to the middle of the track for the stretch run.

Irwin called what he was watching "surreal."

"When it happens, it's hard to process," he said.