FLORENCE — For Team Valor founder Barry Irwin, the results of Saturday's Grade III, $500,000 Vinery Spiral Stakes was twofold in its levels of satisfaction.
Not only did it give Irwin's homebred colt Animal Kingdom the credentials needed to head into the Kentucky Derby starting gate, but it also provided Irwin with hope that one of his other contenders can join his stablemate on the path to the first Saturday in May.
Irwin was among the happier people departing Turfway Park Saturday evening as he watched Animal Kingdom rally past Decisive Moment in the lane to post a 23/4-length win in the Vinery Spiral Stakes.
Animal Kingdom's triumph came one race after his stablemate and fellow Team Valor color bearer Crimson China ran second in the $100,000 Rushaway Stakes going 11⁄16 miles.
As impressed as Irwin was seeing Animal Kingdom mount a last-to-first effort in his first try against graded stakes company, he was equally confident that he has more than one talented 3-year-old in his midst.
"The other horse who ran second today (Crimson China) I think is just as good as this one (Animal Kingdom). He just needs 11⁄8 miles," Irwin said. "They're two peas in a pod.
"We are thinking Derby right now. Animal Kingdom is a strong horse but he is still a little heavy so this race will help him a lot. He's always acted like a quality horse. We're going to run Crimson China back in the Blue Grass Stakes (at Keeneland on April 16) and figure it out from there but we've got two pretty darn nice horses."
Trained by Graham Motion, Animal Kingdom was making just his fourth career start but had already proven he could handle both the synthetic surface and the challenge of going two turns.
The son of Leroidesanimaux broke his maiden second time out going 11⁄8 miles at Keeneland last October and was a good second in a one-mile allowance race on the turf in his seasonal debut at Gulfstream Park on March 3.
Though Animal Kingdom ended up at the back of the 11-horse field early on the in Spiral, jockey Alan Garcia saved ground on the rail and had his mount picking off horses down the backside as 8-to-5 favorite Positive Response carved out a quick opening half in :46.56.
"I stayed on the rail because I had a feeling everybody would try and go wide," Garcia said. "I figured if he was good enough, he would make a move and he did. Wherever they want to go with this horse, I want to be there."
Decisive Moment moved up three-wide to take over the lead coming into the stretch, but his advantage was short- lived when Garcia angled Animal Kingdom out wide and prevailed after a determined stretch run to stop the Teletimer in 1:52.32 for 11⁄8 miles.
"Today it seemed you couldn't afford to get too far out of it but ... that just makes his race all the more impressive," said Motion, who won this race with Adriano in 2008 when it was known as the Lane's End Stakes. "We haven't had him on the dirt yet but (the Derby) is something Barry and I will talk about. I don't think distance is a problem and we know he's an impressive animal."
Decisive Moment held for runner-up honors, 31/4 lengths clear of Twinspired in third. Positive Response faded to eighth.
King Congie, the second choice in the morning-line, was scratched after straining a hind muscle during a gallop at Turfway Friday morning.
"When I saw the pace, I was beyond concerned," said Bill Morey, trainer of Positive Response. "We're going home to regroup."
The Vinery Spiral was not the only race on Turfway's card to produce results that could impact Kentucky Derby week. The Larry Jones-trained Summer Soiree earned herself a possible spot in the Grade I Kentucky Oaks when she romped to a 103/4-length triumph in the Grade III, one-mile Bourbonette Stakes.
Summer Soiree headed into the $100,000 Bourbonette off a 93/4-length win in a 11⁄16-mile allowance race at Oaklawn Park on Jan. 30. The daughter of War Front showed she could adapt to a synthetic surface for the first time as she led every point of call, crossing the wire in 1:38.75 after cutting an opening half in :48.42.
"We may go straight to the Oaks off of this," Jones said. "She runs very well with time between starts and 41 days should be a good time."