LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Late Thursday, John Velazquez didn't know what was worse, failing to get to the winner's circle of the Kentucky Derby in 12 previous tries or not even making the starting gate with a favorite, as he has in the past three years.
He had just gotten the news that Uncle Mo, last year's Juvenile champion and the latest wonder horse, was still not himself after a stomach infection and would not run in the Derby.
Velazquez's mood improved when he got a call from trainer Graham Motion, who needed a rider for Animal Kingdom. Wednesday, regular rider Robby Albarado broke his nose at Churchill Downs when a horse bucked him off in a post parade and kicked him in the face.
"This is roller-coaster business, and I was more than happy to get the call," Velazquez said.
Animal Kingdom, who had never raced on dirt, reacted to his new rider the way a champion should, charging down the middle of the stretch Saturday to win by 23/4 lengths in front of 164,858, the largest crowd in Derby history. He ran the 11/4 miles in 2:02.04.
Nehro was second and Mucho Macho Man a neck back in third.
"For once, I'm on the good end of it," Velazquez said. "All of a sudden I pick up this one and he wins the Derby, so it was meant to be."
Dialed In went off as the 5-1 favorite for two-time Derby-winning trainer Nick Zito but finished eighth in the 19-horse field.
Tampa Bay Derby winner Watch Me Go, trained by Odessa resident Kathleen O'Connell, finished next to last, in front of Comma to the Top, who chipped his left ankle and will be sidelined for at least two months.
Mucho Macho Man's finish for trainer Kathy Ritvo tied her for second-best result by a female trainer in the race. Shelley Riley saddled Casual Lies to a second-place finish in 1992.
Last year, Velazquez didn't make the Derby starting gate because his mount, Eskendereya, was unable to perform. The same happened the year before with Quality Road. He had even lost his mount in Friday's Kentucky Oaks when R Heat Lightning was injured earlier in the week.
"It's words that you can't describe," Velazquez said of the win. "But I do really feel really bad for Robby. I hope he's winning the Derby with me here. … This is for both of us, buddy. I know you're not on it, but I know you're with me."
Velazquez had obstacles to overcome with Animal Kingdom, the least of which was the colt's 30-1 morning-line odds. (He went off at closer to 20-1.)
For one, Animal Kingdom had never run on dirt. He was bred to be a turf horse and had won the Spiral Stakes on a synthetic surface. But that was March 26, and the last horse to win the Derby off such a long rest was Needles in 1956. Even more daunting, he was lightly raced, and the last horse to win the Derby off just four lifetime races was Exterminator in 1918.
As the field gunned into the first turn led by the speedy Shackleford, Velazquez started to feel good about the colt he had previously watched only on video. "He was so relaxed," Velazquez said.
Shackleford was loping the field through an easy half-mile in 48.36 seconds. Animal Kingdom was cruising wide down the backstretch in 12th, and Velazquez was starting to like his chances.
Behind him, two of the major contenders were having problems. Dialed In was struggling with the dirt being kicked in his face, and Archarcharch's Jon Court was having trouble staying in his saddle after breaking from the No. 1 hole.
"My saddle slipped coming out of the gate," Court said. "He never really was comfortable."
Archarcharch was taken off the track in a van after the race with a leg injury and will have surgery for a non-life-threatening fracture.
As they circled the far turn, Velazquez let Animal Kingdom find another gear. As they hit the mile pole, they were fifth, behind Shackleford, Nehro, Comma to the Top and Pants on Fire.
"When I asked him to run, it was amazing," Velazquez said.
He scrubbed at Animal Kingdom's neck, and the big colt took off. He gave Animal Kingdom more reins and pumped in rhythm atop him, coaxing out gigantic strides. "I knew we were gone," Velazquez said.