How much of an Animal?

BALTIMORE — Barry Irwin has had 14 days to digest and analyze what took place at Churchill Downs on May 7, but that doesn't mean the founder of Team Valor International is any closer to a clear explanation for it.

How could Animal Kingdom, a colt who had never raced on dirt with a pedigree built for grass, win the Kentucky Derby in going-away fashion?

How is it despite having to chase some of the slowest fractions in the race's history, the son of Leroidesanimaux was able to close with such ease?

"He's not bred to run on the dirt. Why he can run on the dirt, why he is this good, I have no idea," Irwin said. "I'm not one of these guys who believes in fate. But some force has given us this horse that is way beyond me."

Trying to figure out just what 2-1 favorite Animal Kingdom is made of has become a popular debate in racing circles. At the least, today's 136th Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course will determine if that talk intensifies for the next 21 days leading into the Belmont Stakes or peters out.

Animal Kingdom's 2¾-length Kentucky Derby triumph gave him the greatest distinction of his career, but it hasn't silenced those who wonder if he is on his way to being a one-race wonder.

Although the Preakness field is not viewed as the toughest assembly of 3-year-olds this year, the fact Animal Kingdom was such an unknown factor heading into the Derby because of his prior starts over turf and synthetic surfaces has contributed to the mix of admiration and skepticism regarding his form.

"I'll become a fan of Animal Kingdom if he keeps going on," said trainer Nick Zito, who will bring 9-2 choice Dialed In into the Preakness off an eighth-place finish in the Derby. "He's done so many things that are unusual. He just may be a very good horse. Hopefully our little guy has something to say about it."

Instead of focusing on what history or his pedigree says Animal Kingdom should or shouldn't be able to do, his connections are letting the colt inspire them with his impressive efforts and behavior.

In five career starts, he has never been worse than second, with his lone loss this year coming in a 1-mile turf race at Gulfstream Park on March 3.

"I'm not sure we've seen the best of him," said trainer Graham Motion, who has saddled three previous Preakness starters. "Whether we'll see the best of him or more (today) I don't know but I'm thrilled with how he's doing."

A notion that has been floated is that the Derby resembled a turf race from a pace standpoint: slow fractions leading to a fast finish.

"If he runs the same way and reacts the same way as he did in the Derby, he'll be very tough," jockey John Velazquez said. "He was so calm, even with the hoopla he showed no stress. In the race, he ran like he had run on the dirt 20 times."

On paper, Animal Kingdom should have an easier time unleashing his run, as there is likely to be a quicker pace in the 1 3/16-mile race.

Midnight Interlude is expected to be much closer to the front than he was during his 16th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby. And Derby third-place finisher Mucho Macho Man is also expected to be in the mix when the field hits the top of the stretch.

If Animal Kingdom does not regress, his connections won't be the only ones thinking they're in the company of a uniquely special animal.

"The Derby winner gets all the respect and that's the way it should be," said five-time Preakness-winning trainer Bob Baffert, who conditions Midnight Interlude. "We're just here to try and turn the tables and just maybe throw out the Derby. That's all you can do."

>>tonight

136th Preakness Stakes

What: Second leg of horse racing's Triple Crown

When/where: Post time 6:18; Pimlico Race Course, Baltimore

Length: 1 3/16 miles

Purse: $1 million; $600,000 for first place

TV/radio: Ch. 8, 1010-AM

Kentucky Derby winner: Animal Kingdom (2-1 favorite)

Weather: 78 degrees, partly cloudy, 10 percent chance of rain

In Tampa Bay: Early openings at Derby Lane and Tampa Bay Downs (10 a.m.) and Tampa Greyhound (10:15) for Preakness undercard.

How much of an Animal? 05/20/11 [Last modified: Friday, May 20, 2011 11:38pm]

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