He's not packing up his tack and going home. He's not going to be that kid with the awesome new soccer ball complaining that he's not getting enough touches and that his ball is getting all scuffed up. He lost, but he’s not a loser.
Street Sense took his folding chair out after losing to Curlin by a nose in 2007, and, as a result, won zero end-of-year honors. Curlin took two that year. Super Saver proved just willing after he tried the Preakness and left after Calvin Borel’s Triple Crown-guarantee. Even Lookin' At Lucky could've booned the Belmont but instead got sick (don't tell Michael Jordan).
No, what Animal Kingdom is doing is good for a number of reasons, here's the best reason:
1. The "He's Now Officially Good for the Breed" Reason
Just because Animal Kingdom won the Derby doesn’t mean he “got a mile and a quarter.” (Though, it must be said, he was accelerating in that final sixteenth.)
Someone has to win that race, someone, and just because he wins doesn’t equal the stamina that’s good for the breed. If Mine That Bird were not gelded he’d make a better sire-prospect than Super Saver.
Even if Animal Kingdom loses the Belmont, say he finishes fourth, third, second, even fifth, you know what he did? He not only won the Derby, placed in the Preakness, but he ran three grueling two-turn races in five weeks and lived to talk about it. And THAT is what is good for the breed.
Curlin ran third in the Derby, won the Preakness and was nosed in the Belmont. He’s good for the breed (and we will soon see his babies run). Mine That Bird would’ve been good: first, second, third, in that order in the Classics.
This year we have at least two in Preakness winner Shackleford and Animal Kingdom and no matter where they fall in the Belmont, they will be better for the breed.
2. The “Recognizability of Horses in an Otherwise Meaningless Race” Reason
Animal Kingdom won the Derby in front of 14.5 million viewers. That’s 14.5 million people who will likely recognize the name Animal Kingdom if you told them he won the Derby.
He then went to the Preakness where 8.8 million viewers watched him lose to the gritty champ Shackleford. Bottom line is that people are starting to know who he is, and what will that say of a sport when on its biggest platform—the Triple Crown—he’d be absent?
3. The “Barry Irwin Can Use All the Good Press” Reason
By now Team Valor president Barry Irwin has cleared his name from the inflammatory remarks he made post-Derby. He was emotionally vulnerable and he’s stood up to it like a gentleman.
There will be no Triple Crown winner for the 33rd straight year and he’s sitting on the front-runner to win an Eclipse Award for Champion Three-Year-Old Colt and, possibly, Horse of the Year (who else is there, really?), so what’s the incentive to run him when there’s no such history at stake? Because there’s 12 furlongs, a whole lot of dough and when Irwin runs Animal Kingdom in a spot with a tired horse with every reason NOT to run him, it makes him and Team Valor look like gamesmen, players, men who trade paint, duke it out, and say boo to all the phonies and secret slobs of the world.
You’d have to go back to 1995 and Thunder Gulch for the last Derby-Belmont double winner. And Animal Kingdom will be in stellar company should he pull it off with the likes of Swale, Bold Forbes and Riva Ridge.
Lately, horses get outta town when they no longer can accomplish transcendent-style history. In this case, trainer Graham Motion and Irwin are saying, contrary to what Holden Caulfield said, that certain things shouldn’t stay they way they are.
Brendan O'Meara is the author of Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year. It is available for pre-order at Amazon.com or at SUNY Press's website. Read about narrative nonfiction at The Blog Itself, more horse racing at The Carryover Classic, read his "Bourbon Underworld" stories at Kentucky Confidential, follow him on Twitter, or friend him on Facebook. His website is http://www.brendanomeara.com.