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John Clay: Too soon to tell what Animal Kingdom's win means

LOUISVILLE — As bright sunshine hit the roof of Barn 22 at about 7:30 on Sunday morning, Animal Kingdom calmly walked the shedrow as photographers eagerly snapped his picture.

Outside the barn, someone asked Barry Irwin what it meant to own the Kentucky Derby winner.

"I know everybody wants me to say my whole life has changed," said the head of Team Valor International. "But I feel exactly the same. My major comment would be is that I'm just so happy to own a horse that's good. That's what means something to me."

Ah, but how good?

After all, the last two Kentucky Derby winners, Mine that Bird in 2009 and Super Saver last year, never won another race after capturing the roses.

And it didn't take long after Animal Kingdom's victory at odds of 20-1 for the Derby to be dismissed by skeptics as a race run like a grass race with slow fractions and a rallying finish and won by a grass horse.

"Baloney," said trainer Graham Motion when he met the media at the winning barn on Sunday morning.

Yet, because of the horse's pedigree — "He has a turf pedigree," Irwin readily admitted — and the fact that Animal Kingdom had never run a race on dirt before Saturday, the questions will linger. Winning the Derby, with its often freakish qualities, won't make them go away.

"I think that a really, really good horse, and some of the good horses in the past, some of the best horses have been the one who've been able to handle both," Motion said. "Maybe he's better on the grass, but he's also able to handle the dirt. And I think brilliant horses can do that."

Truth be told, we don't really know if Animal Kingdom is brilliant. Not yet. He had run in just four races before Saturday. Only one of those four had been a stakes race, that being the Grade III Spiral Stakes he won at Turfway. In fact the son of the Brazilian sire Leroidesanimaux had never even run in a Grade II race, much less a Grade I.

After a second-place finish in his debut last September, Motion elected to send Animal Kingdom to the Fair Hill training center for a month.

"It's good for a horse to take time off," the trainer said Sunday. "You don't need to be injured to take time off."

It was six weeks between Animal's win in the Spiral and the Derby, which could serve him well with two weeks to the Preakness.

"We have a fresh horse," Motion said.

Besides, this does not appear to be a particularly robust three-year-old crop. Most analysts thought the Derby would be wide open, and it played out that way.

The favorite, Florida Derby winner Dialed In, finished eighth. Santa Anita Derby winner Midnight Interlude, a horse that did not race at age two, showed his immaturity, finishing 16th. Arkansas Derby winner Archarcharch suffered a non-life-threatening fracture in Saturday's race.

Considering the uncertainty over Uncle Mo's illness, you would think the Todd Pletcher trainee is a no-go for the Preakness as well.

Not that Irwin and Motion appeared to care all that much about that. Motion remarked that everything happened so fast after the race he didn't know where the time went.

"I don't know what happened between 6:30 and 9 o'clock," he said. "Someone said that it was 9 o'clock and I said, 'What happened to the last two-and-a-half hours?' It was extraordinary."

Motion met Irwin and jockey Johnny Velazquez at the Jockey Silks ball at the Galt House.

Irwin said his wife, Kathleen, had not even had time to update the Team Valor Web site. The owner said Kathleen usually gets to bed by nine. Her head didn't hit the pillow until 2 a.m. Sunday morning.

But even if Animal Kingdom never wins another race, it was a glorious Sunday.

"My oldest friend from high school sent me this email last night," Irwin said. "He says, 'Well, I guess we know what your obituary is going to say.'"

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