05/19/2011 11:23AM

Preakness: Animal Kingdom a solid choice


BALTIMORE – Just one look, that’s all it took for Animal Kingdom to go from mystery horse to respected leader of the pack. A 20-1 outsider at the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago in his first race on dirt, Animal Kingdom’s dominating victory has made him the clear-cut favorite for the 136th Preakness Stakes on Saturday here at Pimlico, where he will try to keep his Triple Crown hopes alive.

PREAKNESS STAKES 2011: Contender profiles, news updates, video, and odds »

It is rare for a longshot winner of the Derby to command such instant respect at the Preakness. Mine That Bird won the 2009 Derby by more than six lengths at 50-1, yet was only the third choice, at 6-1, in a field of 13 at the Preakness. Giacomo won the 2005 Derby at odds of 50-1, and was the third choice, at 6-1, in the Preakness. Charismatic won the 1999 Derby as a 31-1 outsider, and was only the fifth choice, at 8-1, at Pimlico.

Animal Kingdom, though, is the solid 2-1 favorite on the lines set by Frank Carulli of Pimlico and Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form’s national handicapper. His rise mirrors that of War Emblem, who in 2002 went from 21-1 at the Derby to the 5-2 Preakness favorite. If Animal Kingdom wins again, he will be two-thirds of the way to becoming the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

To do so, though, he will have to outrun 13 other 3-year-olds, four of whom are back from the Derby for a rematch, nine of whom are Triple Crown newcomers. Most notable among his challengers are Dialed In, who finished eighth as the Derby favorite, and both Mucho Macho Man, who was third in the Derby, and Shackleford, who was fourth.

What gave Animal Kingdom such instant respect was the way in which he won the Derby. For the most part, it was a cleanly run race, and he won by 2 3/4 lengths, adapting to a slow pace that hindered other late runners. The manner in which the race was run – slow early, fast late, like a turf race – likely has left him fresher for this quick turnaround than a typical horse who just ran 1 1/4 miles on dirt for the first time in his life.

“He’s really in great form,” said Graham Motion, who trains Animal Kingdom for the Team Valor International partnership that is headed by Barry Irwin. “Honest to God, he hasn’t missed a meal throughout all this.”

VIDEO: Animal Kingdom's connections discuss his Preakness preparation »

He can eat. Thousands of others here are Saturday will do their part to drink and be merry. Pimlico has had an aggressive marketing campaign for the Preakness, aimed at the many college-aged students who live in the area, focusing on the race, a strong lineup of infield concerts – including popular Grammy Award winner Bruno Mars – and bottomless cups of beer, not necessarily in that order. The mascot for the event is Kegasus, a Centaur-like creature whose likeness is plastered on billboards all over town.

Animal Kingdom took wing at the Derby, rallying from 12th in the 19-horse field. The pace of this 1 3/16-mile race should be quicker, with speedsters Dance City and Flashpoint added to the lineup.

“I can only imagine the pace is probably an advantage to him,” Motion said. “I don’t know why it would hurt him. It’ll be maybe a truer run race possibly. I think there’ll be an honest pace on Saturday.”

This will probably be the only time in Animal Kingdom’s life that he will come back on just two weeks’ rest.

“I normally don’t do this, but he’s a horse who handles it, which makes my life easier,” Motion said. “It’s a matter of how much the Derby took out of him. He ran the biggest race of his life in the Kentucky Derby.

“I do think he’s an extraordinary animal. He seemed to win the Derby relatively easily.”

And he could still be improving. Animal Kingdom has raced just five times.

“I’m not sure we’ve seen the best of him,” Motion said. “Whether or not we’ll see the best of him or more of him this Saturday I don’t know. I’m thrilled with how he’s doing. Visually he didn’t have a hard race in the Derby.”

Dialed In, the likely second choice, was compromised by that slow Derby pace. He closed from 19th to eighth

“He’s going to come with his run,” said his trainer, Nick Zito. “I still believe Dialed In is the best 3-year-old in the country.”

Dialed In is in line for a windfall payday. Because of earlier victories in the Holy Bull Stakes and Florida Derby, he will receive a $5.5 million bonus – $5 million for owner Robert LaPenta, $500,000 to Zito – if he wins. That’s in addition to the first prize of $600,000 from the $1 million purse of the race. His jockey, Julien Leparoux, through another bonus, would get $100,000.

Shackleford would receive a $550,000 bonus if he wins because of earlier participation in the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby. He set a soft pace in the Kentucky Derby before being passed by three horses.

Jockey Victor Espinoza, like Leparoux, also has a $100,000 bonus dangling in front of him should he get Mr. Commons home. Espinoza qualified for the bonus by winning the Santa Anita Derby with Midnight Interlude, whom he rode in the Derby but who will have Martin Garcia for the Preakness.

Mr. Commons is trained by John Shirreffs, who guided the magnificent career of Zenyatta.

Midnight Interlude is trained by Bob Baffert, who has won the Preakness five times in its last 14 runnings.

Baffert won last year’s race with Lookin At Lucky. Jockey Garrett Gomez, who was bumped from Lookin At Lucky following a rough trip in the Derby, will be seeking his first Triple Crown race win aboard Sway Away.

Edgar Prado, the Hall of Famer who was based in Maryland for much of his career, is trying to win his first Preakness, after 13 losses, on the longshot Isn’t He Perfect.

PREAKNESS FIELD: Post positions, odds, comments by Watchmaker and Privman »

Though overshadowed following the Derby, Mucho Macho Man remains very much a major player, and would provide a compelling story line, since his trainer, Kathy Ritvo, is a heart-transplant recipient.

He’s not the only horse whose win would bring forth an emotional outpouring from his connections.

King Congie is named for Congie DeVito, a popular employee of owner West Point Thoroughbreds who died earlier this year. And King Congie will be ridden by Robby Albarado, who was replaced on Animal Kingdom the day before the Derby and had to watch from the jockeys’ room as John Velazquez headed to the winner’s circle.

Astrology is owned in part by Stonestreet Stables, the racing and breeding operation of Jess Jackson, who won the Preakness with Horses of the Year Curlin and Rachel Alexandra before his death one month ago.

And Dance City is owned by the estate of Edward P. Evans, the highly successful owner and breeder who died on Dec. 31.

The Preakness tugs at the heartstrings of those based on Maryland, so an upset victory by Concealed Identity or Norman Asbjornson would thrill their connections.

“It’s overwhelming just to be here,” Chris Grove, the trainer of Norman Asbjornson, said Thursday morning at the Alibi Breakfast. “Growing up 40 miles from here, this is the race we picked out.”

The Preakness is the 12th race on a 13-race card that begins at 10:45 a.m Eastern time. Post time for the Preakness is listed as 6:18 p.m. It is the final leg of a pick four that has a guaranteed pool of $1 million. It is also the second half of a double wager that began with Friday’s Black-Eyed Susan Stakes.

The Preakness will be televised live by NBC in a two-hour telecast beginning at 4:30. Three prior stakes on the undercard (races eight through 10) will be seen live on Versus, in a two-hour telecast beginning at 2:30. There also will be a half-hour Preakness wrap-up show on Versus at 6:30.

According to the National Weather Service, the forecast for Saturday is for partly cloudy skies and a high temperature of 83 degrees. There was a 50 percent chance of thunderstorms predicted for Friday.

– additional reporting by David Grening