FLORENCE, Ky. -- Animal Kingdom passed all 10 of his rivals before finally getting the best of a stubborn last one when stamping his Kentucky Derby ticket Saturday by winning the 40th running of the Grade 3, $500,000 Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes, the annual showcase event at Turfway Park.
With Alan Garcia aboard for trainer Graham Motion, Animal Kingdom lagged back early while actually not too far behind the front-running group, then steadily made up ground down the backstretch and in the final turn of the 1 1/8-mile Polytrack race. By the quarter pole, he had dead aim on Decisive Moment, who had emerged best of the others and wound up being the only opponent to give the eventual winner a challenge by briefly matching strides in upper stretch. Animal Kingdom then drew clear late to win by 2 3/4 lengths, and it was another 3 1/4 lengths back to Twinspired in third and 5 3/4 more back to Beachcombing in fourth.
"I had a little bit of trouble into the first time and I said, 'Okay, let me be patient,' " said Garcia. "I thought if he's good enough, he's going to go on, and he did. I'm very excited. Wherever this horse goes, I want to be there."
Barry Irwin, who heads the Team Valor International group that bred and owns Animal Kingdom, said the Spiral might well be the final race for the colt before the 137th Derby on May 7. With a $285,000 winner's purse, he is virtually assured a spot in the Churchill Downs gate.
"We'll have to wait and see, but this might be it," said Irwin.
Animal Kingdom returned $8 as second choice after finishing in 1:52.32. A son of Leroidesanimaux, Animal Kingdom was making just his fourth start, and none has been on dirt. His previous race resulted in a runner-up finish in a first-level turf allowance at Gulfstream Park.
On a gray, chilly afternoon, Positive Response was sent to the early lead while challenged by Son of Posse and Decisive Moment into the first turn. Down the backstretch, as they jostled for position in relatively close order, it was Decisive Moment, the 6-1 third choice, who kept going with Kerwin Clark aboard, but he was no match for the winner.
Positive Response, the 8-5 favorite, faded badly to finish eighth.
The victory was the second in the Spiral for Motion, who won in 2008 with Adriano. It was a huge day for Motion, as he also sent out Smart Bid to capture the Grade 2 Mervin Muniz at Fair Grounds about two minutes before the Spiral was run.
The $2 exacta (4-10) paid $58.20 and the $2 trifecta (4-10-11) paid $649.
King Congie, the second choice on the morning line, was an early scratch after incurring a minor injury in training Friday.
Swift Warrior heads to Blue Grass after Rushaway win
The respective connections of the first two finishers in the $100,000 Rushaway Stakes, which directly preceded the Spiral, said quickly afterward that both horses will run back April 16 in the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes over Polytrack at Keeneland.
Swift Warrior, a First Samurai colt making his first start since being purchased privately by James Covello and James Dolan, drew off from a couple of pursuers after challenging for the early lead, then withstood a late run from favored Crimson China in prevailing by two lengths. Javier Castellano was aboard Swift Warrior, who returned $10 as second choice after finishing 1 1/16 miles in 1:45.73.
"We'll go into the Blue Grass with a fresh horse," said winning trainer John Terranova. "It's pretty exciting."
Crimson China, the 6-5 choice for Team Valor, was last of nine for most of the way before making up late ground.
"This was just too short for him," said Irwin. "We should be all set for the Blue Grass. I actually believe this horse and our Spiral winner are very close in ability. It's a great position to be in."
The Ole Gen chased Swift Warrior much of the way before settling for third, another 3 1/4 lengths back.