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May 13, 2011

Could a Triple Crown champion finally emerge?

By: by Jeff Frank, Contributing Editor



Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed...Animal Kingdom? That phrase sounds eerily similar to Sesame Street's "one of these things is not like the others." However, if Animal Kingdom should win the Preakness, the Triple Crown will be a forgone conclusion since not many three-year-olds are more apt to handle the grueling 1 1/2-miles of the Belmont Stakes than the son of Leroidesanimaux.

Animal Kingdom came into the Kentucky Derby with just four career starts, including a win in the Spiral Stakes over Polytrack at Turfway Park. In fact, the Derby was the colt's first ever start on conventional dirt. The 20-1 longshot was expertly ridden by John Velazquez, who had the horse about five- lengths off the pace after three-quarters in a slow 1:13 2/5. From there, the victory was in the bag as the Graham Motion-trained colt stormed past the front-runners just inside the eighth-pole en route to an easy 2 3/4-length victory.

The win was quite a story on many levels as the horse was never considered the owner's, the trainer's, and even the jockey's number one choice. Heading into late March, Team Valor's top colt was Crimson China. Meanwhile, Motion felt his best chance to win the Derby was with Toby's Corner, who was withdrawn from the race a few days earlier after injuring his left hind leg. Finally, Velazquez got the call after his horse, Uncle Mo, was scratched, and Robby Albarado suffered a broken nose last Wednesday. (Albarado was scheduled to ride the Derby winner.)

Animal Kingdom's one question mark coming into the race was his ability to close against classier horses than the likes of Decisive Moment, Positive Response and Son of Posse. Those three were the ones he flew by with ease in the Spiral Stakes. The acid test would come against quality grade one colts and the answer was obvious after he glided home in a sharp 48 1/5 final half- mile for the win.

Nehro had to settle for his third straight second-place finish as he held off the late-closing Mucho Macho Man. The son of Mineshaft will more than likely pass on the Preakness since it would be his fourth race in eight weeks.

As for Mucho Macho Man, he will have to grow up in a hurry to win the Preakness as he was all over the racetrack through the stretch. He also bore in badly inside the final furlong in his previous start but that was dismissed due to losing a shoe. The Derby third-place finisher is still filling out as he was a very late foal and he obviously still needs some seasoning. However, there's no denying his talent and he has every right to be the second choice in the Preakness.

As for Shackleford, give credit to jockey Jesus Castanon for slowing down the pace of the race to a crawl. His 25 2/5 second quarter allowed Shackleford to eventually stretch his lead to almost two-lengths into the stretch. Unfortunately, the 1 1/4-mile distance proved too much as the son of Forestry tired badly inside the final furlong.

As for the rest of the key participants, Master of Hounds closed well on the inside to claim the $60,000 fifth-place prize in a three-horse photo with Santiva and the late closing Brilliant Speed. Dialed In, the 5-1 favorite who never had a chance with the slow early fractions, wound up eighth, while Pants On Fire, the 8-1 second choice, tired through the lane to finish ninth. The Kelly Breen-trained colt bled during the race and will be rested until the summer.

The "Apollo" curse lives on as next year's running will be the 130th anniversary since Apollo won the Kentucky Derby without a start as a two-year- old. Midnight Interlude tried to snap the long streak this year and the Santa Anita Derby winner was as flat as a pancake defeating just three other horses.

After six years of Kentucky Derby winners winning the Preakness over an eight- year span between 1997 and 2004, the public has had only one chance to root home a Triple Crown champion. That came in 2008 with Big Brown. Can Animal Kingdom become the next superstar in waiting? History is against him as there has not been a Triple Crown winner since 1978. However, don't be shocked if the Derby winner adds the Preakness to his ever-growing conquests on his way to racing immortality.

WHO WILL CHALLENGE ANIMAL KINGDOM IN THE PREAKNESS?

As previously mentioned, it doesn't appear as if many Derby starters will move forward to Baltimore. As of this writing, only Animal Kingdom, Mucho Macho Man, Shackleford, and Dialed In are definite.

The public will continue to back Mucho Macho Man, but he still needs time to develop. Shackleford ran his heart out on Saturday at 23-1. Nevertheless, he was primed for a big effort and will find it difficult to repeat his Derby performance.

Dialed In has the right to move forward and if he gets set up with faster early fractions, he could pick up all the pieces. He had zero chance to win the Derby after sitting 17-lengths off the pace (in last place) after six- furlongs were run in 1:13 2/5. On the other hand, one has to wonder if trainer Nick Zito will enter him only for the money since a win carries a bonus of $5.5 million for finishing first in the Holy Bull and the Florida Derby.

The new shooters will be in full force as there could be eight of them ready to take on the big boys. However, most of them possess a severe lack of talent outside of Sway Away, Flashpoint, and Dance City. In addition, only three of the last 17 runnings have been won by horses that did not race in the Kentucky Derby.

One non-Derby starter that could alter the entire landscape of the Preakness is The Factor. Right now Bob Baffert has him listed as questionable, but if the speedball is entered, he has a chance to wire the field. More importantly, his early speed could set the race up perfectly for Animal Kingdom to march into Belmont Park next month with a chance to become only the 12th Triple Crown champion in racing history.



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