Juvenile champion Uncle Mo had been the talk of the racing world for months and was the overwhelming early favorite for the 2011 Kentucky Derby. Undefeated in his first four career starts, including the Champagne S. (G1) and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile S. (G1), he looked more than promising until a third place finish in the Wood Memorial S. (G1) at 1-9 odds. Just days after the race, tests revealed that the colt had a gastrointestinal infection. He was uncertain for the first Saturday in May.
At the post position draw, Holy Bull S. (G3) and Florida Derby (G1) winner Dialed In was named the slight morning line favorite at 4-1 odds. Uncle Mo was installed as the 9-2 second choice. However, the day before the Kentucky Derby, Uncle Mo was scratched. His health issues were not resolved. Many handicappers went back to the drawing board, but few were able to predict the winner.
Animal Kingdom was one of the co-longest shots on the board who shared 30-1 morning line odds, and for a reason: he had never run on dirt. The chestnut colt had two synthetic track victories on his resume. The latter was the Spiral S. (G3) (now known as the Jeff Ruby Steaks) at Turfway Park, and the 2 3/4 length win made him eligible for the Kentucky Derby.
“We haven’t had him on the dirt but it’s something Barry [Irwin of owning partnership Team Valor International] and I will talk about” trainer Graham Motion said after the Spiral. “I don’t think distance is a problem. Now he’s got the earnings. We know he’s an impressive animal.”
Irwin is a former turf writer and employee of Blood-Horse and Daily Racing Form. He started Team Valor in 1987.
One of Animal Kingdom’s other starts in his four-race career was a second place finish on turf, where his pedigree indicated that he was bred for success. He is a son of Leroidesanimaux, the Eclipse Award 2005 Champion Grass Horse, whose name means “king of the animals” in French.
Animal Kingdom tested dirt for the first time in a Churchill Downs workout on April 30.
"He breezed really well,” Motion said. The buzz was that [Bob] Baffert watched him and said he was the horse to beat. At least at that point, I felt we belonged."
The Wednesday before the Derby, jockey Robby Albarado suffered a broken nose when a horse reared into him. He was taken off mounts on Thursday and Friday. John Velazquez, who was supposed to ride Uncle Mo, picked up the mount on Animal Kingdom on Friday. It was his thirteenth start in the race, and his best was a second place finish with Invisible Ink in 2001.
By post time, Animal Kingdom dropped to 20-1 odds. Shortly after leaving the starting gate, Florida Derby runner-up Shackleford grabbed the lead, and he held on to it throughout most of the race. Animal Kingdom was midpack around the first turn and into the backstretch. Near the far turn, Shackleford faced challenges from Pants on Fire and Nehro. Shackleford held on.
However, Animal Kingdom was gaining ground. He roared on the outside and pulled away to win by 2 3/4 lengths, giving Motion, Team Valor, and Velazquez their first Derby wins. Motion did not know how to get to the winner’s circle, and Dale Romans, who was still processing Shackleford’s loss, was a sportsman and graciously led him to it.
In the Preakness S. (G2), Shackelford turned the tables on Animal Kingdom, winning by half a length. Animal Kingdom also ran in the Belmont S. (G1) but was bumped a few strides after leaving the starting gate and stumbled badly. Velazquez lost his left iron and was unable to regain it until just before the first turn. He finished sixth. After the race, x-rays revealed that Animal Kingdom had suffered a slab fracture. He had a minor surgery and sat out the rest of 2011. Even so, the year did end on a high note: he was named champion three-year-old male.
He won his four-year-old bow, an allowance race at Gulfstream Park. He was one week away from departing for the Dubai World Cup when veterinarians discovered a stress fracture in his hind end. It did not require surgery and was unrelated to his previous injury, but it necessitated more time off. He returned in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) on turf, where he finished second to Wise Dan, who set a course-record time.
Animal Kingdom had one more huge career moment: winning the $10 million 2013 Dubai World Cup, which at the time was the richest race in the world. He entered the stretch two lengths ahead and was never challenged.
"This horse has had some kind of saga, up-down, up-down," said Irwin. "We all knew he had a race like this in him. We saw it in the Derby, we almost saw it in the Breeders' Cup. This was it."
He retired with a 5-5-0 record in 12 starts and earnings over $8 million.
His stud career began in September 2013 in Australia. Next, he moved to Darley Stud for the 2014 breeding season. He continued this pattern of going back and forth between Australia and America for four seasons, and then he stayed in America. In 2019, he was sold to the Japan Bloodhorse Breeders' Association, where he stands today,
In 2018, Turfway Park named a stakes race after him. The Animal Kingdom S. is a six-furlong contest for three-year-olds.