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John Clay: Derby Day was a good day for Kentucky racing

When Animal Kingdom hit the finish line to win the 137th running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, it wasn't just the winning connections that were celebrating.

Kentucky racing was celebrating.

They were celebrating at Turfway Park, the oft-ignored northern Kentucky track where Animal Kingdom prepped for the Derby by winning the Grade III Spiral Stakes, a prep that had produced just one Derby winner, Lil E. Tee, back in 1992.

They were celebrating in Lexington at Keeneland, where the horse broke his maiden in October, and where Animal Kingdom trained on that much-maligned Polytrack.

(Polytrack horses don't win the Derby, right?)

They were certainly celebrating at Churchill Downs, where a record crowd of 164,858 ignored the naysayers and turned out to encounter the surprises that routinely mark the first Saturday in May.

As Barry Irwin, head of the 20-member Team Valor partnership that owns Animal Kingdom, said, "It's surreal."

This may not have been the sexiest Derby, without the juvenile champion Uncle Mo, and with a group of 19 horses who carried ridicule as well as riders, but it was a good day, nonetheless.

It was a great day for winning jockey John Velazquez, who lost his mount on Uncle Mo on Friday, then won the race on Animal Kingdom on Saturday.

It was a great day for winning trainer Graham Motion, who suffered the heartache of having his Wood Memorial champ Toby's Corner taken off the Derby trail in the final week because of injury.

"About as tough a blow as you can get in the week of the Derby," said the 46-year-old trainer.

It was a great day for Kentucky handicapper extraordinaire Mike Battaglia, who at the last minute on NBC's telecast jumped off favorite Dialed In and onto Animal Kingdom as his Derby pick.

But it was also a great day for horse racing's capital, which, considering its slipping support and sketchy economic outlook, sure needed a reason to cheer.

"I like to try and make history when I can," said the always colorful Irwin, himself once a turf writer for the Blood-Horse. "We made a lot of history today."

A horse with just four previous races hadn't won the Derby since Exterminator in 1918. Animal Kingdom had raced but four times. A horse had not won the Derby off a six-week layoff since Needles in 1956. Animal Kingdom had not raced in six weeks.

Better still, no horse had ever won the Derby without previously racing on dirt. Animal Kingdom had never raced on dirt.

That had to be especially gratifying for Keeneland and Turfway, Kentucky tracks with synthetic surfaces whose Derby preps have suffered after their products failed to do well on Churchill's dirt surface in the race that counts most.

True, Street Sense won the 2007 Kentucky Derby following a second-place finish on the Polytrack in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, but trainer Carl Nafzger only used that year's Blue Grass as a conditioning prep for his 2-year-old champ. Street Sense was a dirt horse.

Animal Kingdom was not a dirt horse. His debut came on the Poly at Arlington Park last September, a race that was taken off the turf. He then won on the Poly at Keeneland, finished second in a turf race at Gulfstream Park, before winning the Spiral on Poly.

After that, instead of sending Animal Kingdom to Churchill to train on the dirt, Motion first sent him to Keeneland for a pair of 5-furlong works on the synthetic surface.

"This getting hung up on no turf horses have ever done this, or no synthetic horses have ever done this, that kind of stuff," Irwin said. "All that stuff to me is nonsense. The only thing that counts is what has this horse done, and how has he trained, and what do the connections think of him? And with this horse, there were nothing but positives."

For Kentucky racing, it was a very positive day, indeed.

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