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Rough start hurts favorite's chances

6/11/2011

ELMONT, N.Y. -- Five weeks after enjoying a dream trip to win the Kentucky Derby, Animal Kingdom experienced a nightmarish start in Saturday's Belmont Stakes, leading to a sixth-place finish in the final leg of the Triple Crown.

Coming out of the starting gate, Animal Kingdom, the 5-2 favorite, got bumped by Mucho Macho Man, the horse to his immediate outside. A few strides later, Animal Kingdom appeared to clip heels with Monzon, nearly propelling jockey John Velazquez out of the saddle just a few strides into the race.

"I don't know how I stayed on the horse," Velazquez told Barry Irwin, head of the Team Valor International syndicate that owns Animal Kingdom.

It took Velazquez more than a sixteenth of a mile to get his left foot back in the stirrup. By the time he did, Animal Kingdom was last, 15 lengths off the pace after the opening quarter of a mile. Although Animal Kingdom did make a bold move from the half-mile pole to the quarter pole to reach contention, he tired in the stretch, finishing sixth, beaten 9 1/4 lengths over the sloppy main track. This rally occurred three weeks after he rallied from last to finish second to Shackleford in the Preakness.

"I wanted to be on the pace; I didn't want to be too far back," Velazquez said. "The plan was to break a bit better than we did in the Preakness, and, hopefully, we catch up and have a good trip. Right from the start, we didn't."

Back in the jocks' room, Velazquez spoke angrily by phone with the stewards, saying, "You get bad horses that aren't supposed to be in the race, and look what happens," before hanging up the phone.

Watching the race from the grandstand, Graham Motion, the trainer of Animal Kingdom, couldn't believe his colt's misfortune at the break.

"I was sick. How could you not be sick?" Motion said. "You knew you had no shot after that. The race was over for him."

Animal Kingdom trailed the field through the first mile and was still 11 lengths off the pace with one-half mile to run. Leaving the half-mile pole, Animal Kingdom launched a bid, and he had passed five horses by the three-eighths pole. He continued that momentum and moved into fifth, four lengths back at the quarter pole. But it was a bid he could not sustain.

"I really felt down the backside we didn't have any shot at all," Motion said. "Then he started to make that incredible move. By that point, it was asking too much too late."

Despite Animal Kingdom's move to contention, Velazquez knew he wouldn't be able to keep going.

"No, I was already asking him way too much to be where I was from the half-mile pole to the quarter pole," Velazquez said. "I was just hoping he could get a piece of it, and that's why I rode him like that. No way he was going to catch up that much."

It was a disappointing end to a Triple Crown season that had started so promisingly for Animal Kingdom and Motion five weeks ago at Churchill Downs.

"It's disappointing not to give the horse a chance to run his race," Motion said. "That's a tough way to lose. There's a lot of ways to lose in this game, but that's a tough way to lose"

Motion called the last five weeks "remarkable."

"It's been an extraordinary trip," he said. "It's been so cool to do it with such a neat horse. I think you're going to hear great things from this horse down the road."