Animal Kingdom, last year's Kentucky Derby winner and three-year-old champ, returned to the track with a win over an allowance field today at the Gulfstream Park turf course.
The field may have been of lackluster quality, but the end result for Animal Kingdom has to be one his connections should be pleased with.
At the start, on the rail, Tannersville broke alertly and tried to take the early lead, but as expected, Royal Hill was sent to the front from the outside by jockey Paco Lopez.
Midnight Mischief and Belle by the Ridge were behind them in third and fourth place as they rounded the first turn.
At the break from the gate, Animal Kingdom was a step slow and quickly fell to the back of the six-horse field.
Jockey John Velazquez patiently placed Animal Kingdom right to the outside of Monument Hill, who was running in fifth place, and stayed out of trouble through the turn.
Royal Hill took the quarter-pole fractions easily on :23.17, with Tannersville on the inside in second place.
As they hit the back stretch, Royal Hill was still on the lead, but now Bell by the Ridge was only a length behind on the outside.
At this point John Velazquez had to restrain Animal Kingdom a bit since he was eager to go to the front. He was just four lengths behind the leader at the half-mile pole.
Royal Hill slowed down the pace just a notch as he took the half-mile pole half-mile fractions in 49.44.
At this point, from the back of the pack, John Velazquez let go just a bit of the reins on Animal Kingdom, and he went by Monument Hill, Midnight Mischief and Tannersville as if they were standing still.
Velazquez was battling Animal Kingdom as they started to round the final turn, and he placed his horse just outside of Royal Hill and Belle by the Ridge as they hit the three-quarters pole in 1:13.13.
Monument Hill was starting to pick up the pace from fourth place with jockey Javier Castellano aware that Animal Kingdom was breathing down the neck of the leaders heading for the final stretch.
At the top of the stretch, Animal Kingdom was a head in front of Belle by the Ridge, who was trying to stay with him, while Monument Hill started the challenge from third place outside of Animal Kingdom.
But once Velazquez felt Monument Hill get to within a half-length, he urged Animal Kingdom with a vigorous hand ride, and took off from Monument Hill in the stretch to win by two lengths. His final time was 1:41.72 over the firm turf.
Monument Hill was coming all out but was outrun by Animal Kingdom, while Belle by the Ridge was a game third, finishing two lengths behind second place.
Velazquez never used the whip throughout the race, and the only negative you could take away from Animal Kingdom today was how he battled Velazquez around the track.
But this is just the first race in eight months for the son of Leroidesanimaux (BRZ), and his eagerness to run is justified.
There is still a long way to go for the $10 million Dubai World Cup race on March 31st, a race that will feature world class competition, but there are plenty of good signs towards a great year from Animal Kingdom.
And if there is one thing we have learned from Graham Motion, it's that he definitely knows how to prepare his horses for layoffs. The six weeks should be just perfect timing.
Will he be ready? Keep coming back as I will keep you updated on all the preparations from Animal Kingdom and the rest of the horses, gearing up towards the DWC.
Off at: 2:35 Race Type: Allowance Optional Claiming
Age Restriction: Four-year-old and upward
Value of Race: $49,200
Distance: One-and-one-sixteenth miles on the turf
Track Condition: Firm
Winning Time: 1:41.72
John R. Velazquez
Belle By The Ridge
Kent J. Desormeaux
Also ran: 5 Royal Hill , 1 Tannersville , 4 Midnight Mischief
Winning Breeder: Team Valor
Winning Owner: Team Valor International
Winning Trainer: H. Graham Motion