Kentucky Derby brings the unexpected

Updated: May 9, 2011, 11:43 AM ET
By Claire Novak | Special to ESPN.com

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- When the dust settled after Animal Kingdom's upset score in the 137th Kentucky Derby, certain things just seemed to make sense.

Of course a lightly-raced runner with only four starts (never worse than second) and a nice rest off a solid victory in the Grade 3 Spiral Stakes over Turfway Park's Polytrack would take the run for the roses.

Right.

No one expected the Graham Motion trainee to take the $2,171,800 Derby. He was the first horse to ever win the race without a previous start on dirt, but he proved at least one point with his 2 3/4-length score. The road to this great American classic is changing and the paths that trainers take to make it there are increasingly far from traditional.

Animal Kingdom raced well back in 12th, tracking an early pace set by Shackleford, who had Comma to the Top, Decisive Moment, Pants On Fire, Soldat and Nehro in close pursuit. As the field turned for home, Nehro went after Shackleford, who had disposed of his early pursuers, and the two hit the top of the stretch together with Animal Kingdom moving seven-wide into the stretch only a few lengths back. Ranging up alongside, the winner pushed clear at the eighth pole and drew away from Nehro, the last runner he had disposed of with his rally.

In the year of "anything can happen," about the only predictable result was the second-place finish, as Nehro came off back-to-back runner-up efforts in the Arkansas and Louisiana derbies to play bridesmaid one more time. Mucho Macho Man repeated his third-place finish in Louisiana with a third in Louisville as well. Pacesetter Shackleford faded to fourth as they ran the 1-miles in 2:02.04. The winner, the first horse to win the race with only four previous starts since Exterminator in 1918 (and first horse to win after a six-week layoff since Needles in 1956) returned $43.80, $19.60, and $13.00.

Dialed In, the 5-1 favorite and Florida Derby winner, finished eighth. Archarcharch, Arkansas Derby winner and "buzz" horse of the backside, suffered a lateral condylar fracture in his left front leg that will require surgery, but it is not considered life-threatening. He finished 15th. The horse that won the Louisiana Derby, Pants on Fire, was ninth under jockey Rosie Napravnik, only the sixth female in history to ride in the race. And Santa Anita Derby winner Midnight Interlude was all the way back, 16th in a field of 19.

A record crowd of 164,858 turned out to watch 19 horses battle it out on the first Saturday in May, the most since 163,628 came to watch the running of the 100th Kentucky Derby in 1974. The sun was beaming down over the twin spires at the time the runners went to post, and even a brief shower earlier in the day could not dampen their enthusiasm as they wagered $25,001,430.50 on track on all Derby day races. Regally Ready, Sassy Image, Aviate, Aikenite and Get Stormy won stakes events on the undercard.

Of course, the most enthusiastic of the bunch once the race was run were the 20 Team Valor partners, who were represented by stable CEO Barry Irwin at the post-race press conference. Team Valor bred the son of Leroidesanimaux out of the German mare Delaicia and partners bought in to ownership at various levels from $100,000 to an anonymous investor who spent $2 million two weeks ago to obtain his share. The Derby winner's share of $1,411,800 increased the colt's earnings to $1,738,700.

"Everybody keeps saying partnerships are a wave of the future, but I'll tell you something -- we're here right now," Irwin said. "This was a big weekend for the partnerships, with Peachtree Stable winning the Oaks and us winning this race. I hope these racetracks pay attention to the partnerships and treat us a little better than they have been."

Last November, Motion took over the private training of all of Team Valor's runners, based at Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, Md. Earlier in the week, it was announced that his other Kentucky Derby contender, Toby's Corner, would miss the race with an undetermined injury.

"It really has been an extraordinary week," said the English-born Motion. "It was an odd feeling for me to get on the plane on Tuesday, to come here with what I felt was a very live horse in the Derby but still to have a sense of disappointment."

Disappointment was also felt by jockey Robby Albarado, who was replaced by jockey John Velazquez aboard Animal Kingdom after being injured in a Wednesday post parade incident. But for Velazquez, who missed the opportunity to ride in the Kentucky Derby when Quality Road missed the race in 2009 and Eskendereya missed it in 2010 (and who was temporarily left without a mount when Uncle Mo scratched from the race on Friday), it seemed as if the victory was simply, finally, meant to be.

"A lot of things happen for a reason," said Velazquez, who got the win on his 13th try. "People came to me and said, 'three years back-to-back, I guess it was meant to be for you, no matter what.'''

137th Kentucky Derby Complete Order of Finish

1. Animal Kingdom
2. Nehro
3. Mucho Macho Man
4. Shackleford
5. Master of Hounds
6. Santiva
7. Brilliant Speed
8. Dialed In
9. Pants On Fire
10. Twice the Appeal
11. Soldat
12. Stay Thirsty
13. Derby Kitten
14. Decisive Moment
15. Archarcharch
16. Midnight Interlude
17. Twinspired
18. Watch Me Go
19. Comma to the Top

Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the Thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets. You can reach her via her website.