Gulfstream Park has always been fertile ground on which to prepare a horse for a long trip to Dubai in successful pursuit of great reward in the tiny, petro-rich nation that offers the largest purse for a horse race anywhere on the planet. Cigar, Roses in May and Invasor traveled this route to the United Arab Emirates and the prize, now $10-million, that awaits the horse successful in the dessert.
After an impressive return to competition in an otherwise nondescript scrimmage last weekend at Gulfstream, Animal Kingdom, winner at age three of the Kentucky Derby but absent from the public eye since early last June, appears poised and ready for the Dubai World Cup.
While winning the fifth race on a Saturday at Gulfstream is unlikely to make the Animal Kingdom career highlight reel -- though it did make ESPN's Top 10 plays of the day to the delight of trainer Graham Motion -- it was nevertheless important.
It has been a very long time since a Derby winner returned at age four and mounted a meaningful campaign, and in a year in which the reigning Horse of the Year, Havre de Grace, remains in training, Animal Kingdom's success bodes well for the season at hand. Not since Giacomo, the longshot Derby winner of 2005, has a winner of America's race managed even a single victory in the following season. Animal Kingdom with this victory has interrupted a negative trend and awakened the interest of those who saw him last spring as a potential, if ultimately unproven, dominant 3-year-old.
It has been a very long time since a Derby winner returned at age four and mounted a meaningful campaign
"I think when you have a Derby winner everybody owns a little piece of him," Motion said on Saturday. "It may sound a little corny, but when you have a Derby winner, he's a little bit the people's horse and you have a responsibility. I think the reception he got was neat, and I'm glad we got to run him here."
There is a singular mystique in winning the Kentucky Derby, a starring role in the unfolding American drama that is every year. Recent winners, however, have been exposed as horses of the moment not the ages, and even the best of recent decades have either disappeared into the breeding shed or for various reasons left legacies wanting futilely for substantiation. The tragedy and unrealized stardom of Barbaro overshadowed every other story that developed during 2006 and he may have been the one. We will never truly know. But the last Derby winner whose stardom endured at age four is arguably Alysheba, a 3-year-old of 1987.
While racing waits impatiently for the ascension of a breakthrough 3-year-old, its own Jeremy Lin, it may well be the returning stars that carry the day in 2012. Envision Animal Kingdom and Havre de Grace in the same field at Saratoga this summer -- a returning Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old -- a distinct possibility if all goes well in both camps in the coming months. The hind-leg injury suffered in the last Belmont Stakes that ended prematurely Animal Kingdom's 3-year-old campaign may in time be considered a blessing in disguise if not for the horse and his connections, then for the fans and the sport at large in 2012. Smooth sailing last year may well have added Animal Kingdom to the roster of Kentucky Stallions, eliminating many potentially compelling propositions, the first of which is the March 31 Dubai World Cup. The misfortune of 2011 may be the good fortune of 2012.
A year that produced little in the way of definitive dominance may bear fruit in the still nascent season with the unfolding of 2012. Horses often improve markedly with maturity and others prominent last year remain in competition -- Game On Dude, Acclamation, Royal Delta, Awesome Feather, Mucho Macho Man, Caleb's Posse among them. Hymn Book has emerged as a force and likely will not be the year's last surprise.
At this point, the focus is fixed as it should be upon 3-year-olds who have demonstrated the traits of a potential Kentucky Derby winner. So far, none has ignited a spark of genuine excitement. But regardless of what develops on the Triple Crown trail this is a year of compelling possibilities with the principal players of both sexes older than age three, a group of horses battle tested, proven and probably yet to realize their best days.
Several of those aforementioned have launched new campaigns with victories that promise more. Now, Dubai awaits Animal Kingdom. Stay tuned.
Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award, and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He also has been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.