THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
At the Races

Can ‘Kingdom’ also rule Preakness?

By Mark Blaudschun
May 9, 2011

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom will run in the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico in two weeks, so let the Triple Crown chatter begin, just as it has each year since 1978, the last time a horse, Affirmed, pulled it off.

And make no mistake, if trainer Graham Motion’s lightly run chestnut — the Derby was his fifth career race and first on dirt — can win the Preakness, the shortest of the three races at 1 3/16 miles, it will have a legitimate chance to win the 1 1/2-mile Belmont, the marathon of the series.

But here’s the question: Even if Animal Kingdom can pull off the trifecta — he was almost a 21-1 shot in the 1 1/4-mile Derby — should it be a “lower-case’’ triple crown because this is such a weak crop of 3-year olds?

It can be argued that Animal Kingdom won Saturday because somebody had to win. Until race time nobody was sure which horse was worthy, or even capable, of doing that.

What began with the buzz of Uncle Mo’s dominance of the 2-year-old season turned into a lot of whispers and puzzled looks come Derby week.

Whether it was attrition — Uncle Mo, The Factor, and Toby’s Corner all dropped out with injuries — or lack of ability, Saturday’s race appeared to have no stars in waiting.

Shackleford, which took an early lead and held it until the stretch, when Animal Kingdom, Nehro, and Mucho Macho Man chased him down, was a 60-1 shot who finished second in the Florida Derby.

In the 19-horse field, only Soldat had Beyer figures in triple digits.

When Animal Kingdom crossed the finish line in front, the cheers from the regulars at Turfway Park in Florence, an hour and a half up the road, were loud and boisterous. This was one of their own — Animal Kingdom earned his trip in the Derby with a win in Turfway’s Grade III Spiral Stakes.

None of the doubters, of course, diminished the joy at Valor International, which owns Animal Kingdom. It was a magic moment, and Motion and Co. clearly want more.

Early yesterday morning, in a post-Derby analysis, Motion said he would start to focus on the Preakness as quickly as possible.

“I never anticipated winning the Derby, so it’s a lot to take in,’’ said Motion, who probably should have said he didn’t anticipate winning the Derby with Animal Kingdom. He had higher hopes for his other horse, Toby’s Corner, which was withdrawn Monday.

“Yesterday was surreal. It’s an odd feeling to have won the Derby and then you’ve got to start thinking about winning the Preakness. It’s a little daunting.’’

The field in the Preakness, which will be limited to 14 horses, will have some familiar faces.

Mucho Macho Man (third in the Derby) and post-time Derby favorite Dialed In (eighth) will be in Baltimore. Leaning toward coming are the handlers of Nehro (second), Shackleford (fourth), and Santiva (sixth).

Odds are that Animal Kingdom will be one of the favorites, simply because on the first Saturday in May he was better than anybody else.

“I feel really good because we are coming into the next leg with a fresh horse, which is going to be in our favor,’’ said Motion, who will ship Animal Kingdom back to his Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland tomorrow before heading to Pimlico “as late as possible.’’

Among those who did not compete in the Derby but could race in the Preakness are Concealed Identity (winner, Federico Tesio), Dance City (third, Arkansas Derby), Flashpoint (fourth, Florida Derby), King Congie (third, Blue Grass), Mr. Commons (third, Santa Anita Derby), Norman Asbjornson (fourth, Wood Memorial), Prime Cut (second, Lexington Stakes), Saratoga Red (10th, Arkansas Derby), and Sway Away (fourth, Arkansas Derby).

Mark Blaudschun can be reached at blaudschun@globe.com.