Sunday, May 8, 2011

And Now For The Really Hard Part ...

Did you watch the Kentucky Derby yesterday?

Animal Kingdom was the surprise winner.

Well, I say "surprise" — but, in fact, everyone was saying this was the most wide–open Derby in a long time. I saw a comment from one trainer prior to the race who said that nearly all of the 19 horses had at least a shot at winning the race. Only one or two could be considered legitimate upsets, he said.

I don't know if he considered Animal Kingdom to be one of them, but it is true that it has been, as Alicia Wincze Hughes writes for the Lexington Herald–Leader, an "unpredictable" time for 3–year–olds.

Consequently, she just might be right when she says the 20–1 shot was the "perfect specimen" to seize the moment in the Kentucky Derby.

I didn't hear much about Animal Kingdom before the race. Most of the attention was on the other horses. That was to be expected, I guess. He didn't have a very impressive resume.

But I expect to hear a lot about Animal Kingdom in the next two weeks. His days of relative anonymity are over.

For those who follow horse racing to any extent, this may be the most intriguing time of the year. The legendary Triple Crown is out there to be won, and the Preakness is the next jewel.

The Triple Crown hangs in the horizon like something of a mirage, as it always does for the Kentucky Derby winner. The picture becomes a bit clearer if the Derby winner also wins in Baltimore two weeks later — but that is no guarantee of eventual success in the Belmont in June as many of the jockeys who rode Kentucky Derby winners in the last 33 years could tell you.

This is the hard part for Animal Kingdom. The weight of horse racing history hangs heavier with each passing year.

Since Affirmed claimed the 1978 Triple Crown, about two–thirds of the Kentucky Derby winners have come up short in the Preakness. In those years, horse racing's Triple Crown hype has been short lived.

And, even when they have won the second jewel of the Triple Crown, even when they have looked like foregone conclusions in the Belmont, it hasn't worked out that way.

Now it is Animal Kingdom's turn. Can he do what so many others have failed to do? This is the longest drought between Triple Crown winners, but the truth is that it has always been an elusive achievement. Between 1919 and 1978, only 11 horses won the Triple Crown.

Mark Beech of Sports Illustrated seems to think it is possible this year. Yes, he agrees, Animal Kingdom was an unknown quantity before yesterday's race — but don't underestimate him.

He's been improving in every start, Beech writes, and he is "modestly bred, with the pedigree of a turf runner, which in plain English means he should be able to run all day long."

Time will tell.

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