Animal KingdomWhat last year’s crop of 3-year-olds lacked in consistency, it made up for in the percentage that have returned or soon will be returning to race as older horses. Mucho Macho Man came back at four to win the Sunshine Millions Classic following a tough spring campaign, and seems to be on the road to greater things. And though Shackleford did not run to form in last week’s Donn, shortening up will probably land him back in the winner’s circle. Now all eyes will turn to the Kentucky Derby winner, Animal Kingdom, as he makes his first start of the year following a lengthy recovering from a fractured hock.

Last seen, our Derby hero was suffering through some awful luck in the Belmont Stakes. Shortly after the break, Animal Kingdom clipped heels with Mucho Macho Man and jockey John Velazquez came out of his left stirrup. The awkward beginning forced the team to the back of the field, and Animal Kingdom put in a huge move to pass half of the field before finally folding in the stretch. He finished sixth that day in the slop, marking the first time he ran worse than second place; later, tests revealed he had injured himself at some point during the race.

Animal Kingdom may only be running in an allowance race this Saturday at Gulfstream, but his sights are set on something much larger. Trainer Graham Motion is using this grass race as a prep for the world’s richest race, the $10 million Dubai World Cup. Originally, the plan was to run the Derby champ in the Tampa Bay Stakes next weekend, but that plan was scrapped in the worry a big rain would turn the race into a bog, making Animal Kingdom’s one prep before the World Cup a disaster. Who can blame him, really? It’s a huge thing to ask for a horse coming off a 8 1/2-month layoff to work up to running in the biggest race he’ll ever see in his lifetime. The good news is, Animal Kingdom has some key advantages.

First off, let’s face it, the Dubai World Cup has turned into the world’s richest grass race. Traditional dirt horses just don’t dig the fake stuff, and therefore usually don’t run their best on any synthetic anywhere. Yes, there are exceptions to this rule, but let’s be real, here. All you have to do is check out the horses targeting this big purse to realize this tradition has been skewed. Animal Kingdom, however, is the perfect horse to race at Meydan, because he is a grass horse who happens to be able to run on the dirt, as well. Animal Kingdom ran well over Arlington and Keeneland’s Polytrack as a baby, and he made his first start of 2011 on the grass in an allowance at Gulfstream before winning the Spiral Stakes on Turfway’s Poly. His upset in the Kentucky Derby was his first start over the traditional dirt, and his fast-closing second in the Preakness to a valiant Shackleford proved he was no fluke. The surface and 1 ¼-mile distance of the Dubai World Cup are practically tailor-made for this horse to love.

Motion is expecting Animal Kingdom to win this allowance at Gulfstream, which is race 5 on Saturday’s card. If he doesn’t win, it’s tough to say if he really will make the trip to Dubai. Though the colt re-entered training in December, and has been working beautifully, he will be facing some of the best the world has to offer. Among others, pointing toward the World Cup is Australian champ So You Think and Dubai native Mendip, a multiple stakes winner owned by Sheik Mohammed. Running for this bloated purse will be a tough challenge, but our American champ should be up for it if he’s fit. This Saturday will tell us exactly how ready he really is.   

On the Derby Radar:

The El Camino Real Derby will pit a field of ten against each other this Saturday at Golden Gate Fields. Julien Leparoux is flying in to ride Daddy Nose Best, which is always a tip this horse may be ready for a big performance. Russian Greek, winner of the California Derby at this track, will have something to say about it.

Sunday, Creative Cause headlines a field of five in the Grade II San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita. Last seen finishing third behind Hansen and Union Rags in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Creative Cause was the subject of a lot of buzz following an impressive performance in the Grade I Norfolk Stakes last October at Santa Anita.

As of this writing, the Southwest Stakes was still under consideration to be split into two grade III events thanks to twenty-one probables lining up for the 1-mile test at Oaklawn. With the race (or races, in the event it is split) being held on Monday, entries have yet to be drawn. Entries likely for the Southwest include Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint winner Secret Circle, the Smarty Jones winner Junebugred, and the graded stakes-placed Longview Drive. One interesting addition to the scene is Adirondack King, who will bring back Team Smarty Jones to Oaklawn for the first time in several years—jockey Stewart Elliot will ride, and the son of Lawyer Ron is trained by John Servis.