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Animal Kingdom prepares to prove he's the real deal

BALTIMORE — Barry Irwin has had 14 days to soak in and analyze what took place at Churchill Downs on May 7, but that doesn't mean the founder of Team Valor International is any closer to coming up with a clear explanation for it.

How could Team Valor's homebred Animal Kingdom, a colt who had never raced on dirt with a pedigree built for grass, win the Kentucky Derby going away?

How is it, despite chasing some of the slowest fractions in the race's history, the son of Leroidesanimaux was able to close with such ease that his ears were still alertly pricked when he hit the wire?

"He's not bred to run on the dirt. Why he can run on the dirt, why he is this good, I have no idea," Irwin said. "I'm not one of these guys who believes in fate. But some force has given us this horse that is way beyond me. I just don't get it."

Trying to figure out just what Animal Kingdom is made of has become a popular debate in racing circles the past two weeks. At the very least, Saturday's Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course will determine whether that talk intensifies for the next 21 days leading into the Belmont Stakes.

Animal Kingdom's 23/4-length Kentucky Derby triumph gave him the greatest distinction of his career, but it hasn't silenced those who question whether he is just a one-race wonder.

Animal Kingdom closed brilliantly from well off the pace in the Derby despite fellow Preakness entrant Shackleford's crawl through an opening half-mile in :48.63.

The Preakness field appears weak this year. But Animal Kingdom was such an unknown factor heading into the Derby because of his prior starts over turf and synthetic surfaces that there's a mix of admiration and skepticism over his form.

"I'll become a fan of Animal Kingdom if he keeps going on," said trainer Nick Zito, who will bring Dialed In into the Preakness off an eighth-place finish in the Derby. "He's done so many things that are unusual. He just may be a very good horse. Hopefully, our little guy has something to say about it."

Instead of focusing on what history or his pedigree says Animal Kingdom should or shouldn't be able to do, his connections point to his impressive efforts and behavior.

In five career starts, he has never been worse than second with his lone loss this year coming in a 1-mile turf race at Gulfstream Park on March 3.

Though the Kentucky Derby can take an extreme physical toll on a horse, trainer Graham Motion has joked in recent days that Animal Kingdom handled the grind better than any of the humans around him.

"The biggest thing is, he hasn't missed a meal since he ran," said Motion, who has saddled three previous Preakness starters. "He's developed quirkiness. He's maturing, and he thinks he's kind of special right now.

"I'm not sure we've seen the best of him. Whether we'll see the best of him or more this Saturday, I don't know, but I'm thrilled with how he's doing."

The Kentucky Derby resembled a turf race from a pace standpoint: slow internal fractions leading to a fast finish.

What jockey John Velazquez felt in his first time aboard Animal Kingdom, though, was a horse comfortable with the surface he was skipping over.

"If he runs the same way and reacts the same way as he did in the Derby, he'll be very tough," Velazquez said. "He was so calm; even with the hoopla, he showed no stress. In the race, he ran like he had run on the dirt 20 times. Every time I asked him to do something, he was there. I hope he gives me the same feeling (in the Preakness) he did in the Derby."

Just because Animal Kingdom didn't scare any of his 13 Preakness rivals off doesn't mean there isn't still a healthy respect for what he demonstrated two weeks ago.

On paper, Animal Kingdom should have an easier time unleashing his run because there is likely to be a quicker pace set in the 13⁄16-mile middle jewel of the Triple Crown.

Getting honest fractions would also seemingly play into the hands of the late-running Dialed In and Santa Anita Derby winner Midnight Interlude, who is expected to be much closer to the front than he was during his 16th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby.

Kentucky Derby third-place finisher Mucho Macho Man, with his grind-it-out strides, is also expected to be in the mix when the field hits the top of the stretch. If Animal Kingdom does not regress off his Derby run, however, his connections won't be the only ones calling him a special animal.

"He was the best horse in the Derby, and he's going to be tough," said five-time Preakness-winning trainer Bob Baffert, who conditions Midnight Interlude. "He's a beautiful-moving horse, and he really covers the ground well.

"The Derby winner gets all the respect, and that's the way it should be. We're just here to try and turn the tables and just maybe throw out the Derby. That's all you can do."

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