Animal Kingdom hasn’t “officially” been pointed at this race as I write this, but he is certainly being pointed toward the race, and at this point, it seems like it would require a serious setback for him not to be there.
Animal Kingdom finished a hard-charging second in the Preakness Stakes. He was within a half-a-length of Shackleford at the finish and he was closing fast. He had no excuse for the result.
It was a strange race—he lost because of a jockey decision, but you can’t call it a jockey error.
The pace was very swift early on, and that’s typically a good thing for a closer like Animal Kingdom. He got a solid trip and had no big excuses. Jockey John Velazquez wasn’t in a particular hurry to get to the lead because he likely assumed that Shackleford was going to fade; the pace had been swift and the lead is normally a horrible place to be for the Preakness.
He didn’t fade, though, and by the time it became obvious that he wasn’t going to fade, Animal Kingdom didn’t quite have enough room to catch him.
Ultimately it was that decision and not a lack of physical capability that caused him to finish second. You can’t be too hard on Velazquez, though—95 times out of 100 it’s exactly the right decision.
It doesn’t get better for a horse than winning the Kentucky Derby. The more I look back on that race, the more legitimate I think it was. The race set up well for him, but it also set up well for a lot of horses, too, and they couldn’t beat him. It was his first race on dirt, but he looked like a veteran. Impressive.
Jockey: John Velazquez
Velazquez has a win in the Belmont; he was aboard Rags To Riches in 2007 when she beat Curlin to become the first filly since 1905 to win the race. He has some issues, but all in all he’s a very good rider—one of the best—and he’s certainly more than capable of winning this race on this horse.
He’s a very competitive guy, so he will be very motivated by coming up short in the last race.
Trainer: Graham Motion
Motion seemed drained after losing the Preakness, but it doesn’t take away from what he is capable of. He is a very good trainer who trains in a more traditionally British style that should have the horse well prepared for the challenge of the marathon distance.
If there is a major concern in this race, it’s that Motion is traditionally very conservative about race selection; he likes his horses to be well rested and aggressively trained between starts, so three races in five weeks is far from typical for him.
The distance shouldn’t be even a minor concern in this one. With horses like Leroidesanimaux and Candy Stripes (the sire of Invasor) behind him, he has class and stamina to burn. He has had a lot in the tank at the end of the last two races—more in the longer Derby—so we know he can handle both the distance and the dirt.
He’s definitely a closer, but not one who needs or wants to be way at the back of the pack and out of touch. You could argue that his problem at the end of the Preakness came about because he was further back early on than he should have been.
Unlike a lot of closers, he has shown the versatility to deal with different pace scenarios; the Derby was glacial while the Preakness was fast and he was in the winner’s photo both times.
I’ve bet him to win in the last two Triple Crown races, so I’m not going to stop doing it here—he is one of my favorites out of these Belmont Stakes contenders. He didn’t quite win last time out, but he still has clearly shown in my mind that he is the class of this three-year-old crop at this point in the year.
The distance will work in his favor, and the long, wide-open stretch is well suited to him. He’s certainly the horse to beat in this race.
Doc’s Sports official Belmont Stakes picks are available on his Web site.