It looks like Graham Motion is going for the hat trick. The Fair Hill trainer famously prepped Animal Kingdom for his 2011 Kentucky Derby triumph with a Gulfstream Park grass race, in which he finished second, and the $500,000 Spiral Stakes, which he won to punch his ticket for the Derby field.
Last year, Motion saddled Went the Day Well for a fourth-place Kentucky Derby finish after breaking his maiden over Gulfstream’s main track and winning the Spiral over Turfway Park’s synthetic track by more than four lengths.
This year it’s Cerro. Irish-bred and Italian-raced, Cerro uncorked an impressive dirt debut in an allowance race (90-Byer Speed Figure) at Gulfstream on Jan. 26.
Cerro is still learning, so Motion is taking a conservative route with the three-year old chestnut colt. He is expected to go back to the grass in the $150,000 Palm Beach (Grade-3) at nine furlongs over the Gulfstream turf course instead of returning in the $400,000 Fountain of Youth (Grade-2) on Feb. 23. Should all go well, Cerro will have earn his way into the Kentucky Derby in the Spiral Stakes (Grade-3) over Polytrack at Turfway Park on March 23. It is worth 50 points to the winner under the new eligibility system implemented by Churchill Downs for the Derby on May 4.
“We’re thinking of going the route we’ve gone before and try the Palm Beach, which we did with State of Play last year, then go to Turfway,” said Motion. “We’ve had a lot of luck at Turfway over the past few years with these European-type horses. It would be a nice stepping-stone, an easier progression, rather than throwing him to the wolves and going in against the heavy heads in the Fountain of Youth. We feel like it’s a little bit early for that, for him.”
Cerro is the latest Derby prospect from the Team Valor International stable. The beautifully bred son of Mr. Greeley also has new celebrity owners in Olympic gold medal champion swimmer Michael Phelps and his longtime coach, Bob Bowman. They bought into the Team Valor partnership that races Cerro following the colt’s 3 year-old debut when he finished third at Gulfstream on Jan. 1. Phelps and Bowman have visited Motion’s base at Fair Hill Training Center.
Phelps grew up attending the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of the Triple Crown, in his hometown of Baltimore. Bowman and Phelps turned up at the 2009 Kentucky Derby and were at Pimlico Race Course when Animal Kingdom finished runner-up in the 2011 Preakness. Bowman, who introduced Phelps to the intricacies of the sport, owned a small roster of thoroughbreds in Maryland from 2001 to 2010, winning the $100,000 Dancing County Stakes in 2008 at Laurel Park.
“I’ve always loved racing, and I got out of it because it just got to be a little much with the coaching, but now that Michael has retired and we’re on a little more flexible schedule, we both wanted to have fun with it,” Bowman explained. “I think he’s always seen how much fun I’ve had with it and wanted to get involved, and this is a great opportunity for us to do it.”
Purchased for $19,516 at the Tattersalls (England) October yearling auction by Barry Irwin, CEO of Team Valor International, Cerro was sent to Italy where he scored a victory in a seven-furlong maiden on grass at San Siro last June. He raced on turf in his first two starts in the U.S. and improved when he switched to dirt on Jan. 26. He pushed his record to 5-2-0-1, with earnings of $44,254.
Cerro is a full brother to Sachem Spirit, who was second in last spring's Arlington Classic on turf. They are out of the winning Giant's Causeway mare Ballette, a half-sister to multiple Irish stakes winner and Group-1 Irish Derby runner-up Dr Johnson. With his third dam being Sex Appeal, Cerro hails from the extraordinary family of champions El Gran Senor, Try My Best and Rags to Riches.
Team Valor has 40 racehorses in the United States and another 25 in Europe, South Africa and Australia. They syndicate each horse among a group of partners, varying from a handful of members to as many as 20, which is the size of the Animal Kingdom syndicate. The Irwin-Motion combination has enjoyed recent success with such foreign imports as Went the Day Well, Lucky Chappy, La Luna de Miel, Master Shade, Lake Drop, and Gypsy’s Warning.
Animal Kingdom Outsmarted at Gulfstream
In a rousing stretch duel, Phipps Stables' homebred Point of Entry got the best of 2011 Kentucky Derby-winning champion Animal Kingdom in the $300,000 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap over 1 1/8 miles on Feb. 9. Both Point of Entry and Animal Kingdom were making their first starts since suffering unlucky setbacks within 80 minutes of one another on Breeders’ Cup Day.
In a surprising tactical move, Animal Kingdom’s jockey Joel Rosario pushed the horse to the lead along the rail on the backstretch. Point of Entry pulled even with Animal Kingdom and Salto coming off the far turn, grabbed a short lead and then gradually moved clear in late stretch winning by 1 ¼ lengths.
"I know Animal Kingdom well," said Point of Entry’s rider Johnny Velazquez. "If (Rosario) would have waited behind me he probably would have beaten me from the quarter pole home. He made a move so big that he changed his style to my horse's style, so it worked out to my advantage. I had my horse running so much by the time we got to the 3/16 pole my horse got his momentum going. It worked out for us."
Velazquez had been aboard Animal Kingdom four times after picking up the mount from then-injured rider Robby Albarado in the 2011 Kentucky Derby, but was previously committed to ride Point of Entry.
“Animal Kingdom had a hard race, but I think we got outsmarted,” Motion related. “I don’t necessarily think it was all Joel’s fault. It’s a shame with this horse and my biggest concern going into this race was we were using a different jockey. Maybe that’s partly my fault. I think a lot of it is circumstances. It’s not often you win the Derby and you’re not able to get a jockey to stick with the horse. It’s just been circumstances more than anything. That’s my frustration about it."
"Joel moved a little early and it gave Point of Entry a chance to follow him which surprised our horse a little bit. It was asking an awful lot of my horse to run from the five-eighths pole out. Saying that, he got beat by a really good horse and it was not a disgrace by any means. What’s so phenomenal to me about Animal Kingdom is that he has such an extraordinary kick, he showed that in the Breeders’ Cup as well.”
The 5-year-old son of Leroidesanimaux is slated to run in the $10 million Dubai World Cup on March 30 at Meydan Race Course. Motion said he is hoping to work Animal Kingdom three times at Palm Meadows before sending him to Dubai. He will need to be up with the frontrunners as closers don’t typically win over the Meydan Tapeta surface. Velazquez should be in the irons. “I was very pleased with the way he came out of the race,” Motion said. “The big picture has always been getting him to Dubai." Animal Kingdom's career could come to a classic end with a top-flight race at regal Royal Ascot in England. The two-race campaign is unlike anything an American horse has ever tried.
"You just hope you get to each one," Motion said. "The trip to Ascot, if we could do that, would be the icing on the cake. To do that would mean he ran very well in Dubai. Otherwise, we wouldn't do that. To win the Derby and take the horse to Royal Ascot, how much better does it get than that?"
Then he is headed to John Messara's Australia-based Arrowfield Stud. Team Valor sold a 75 percent interest in the breeding rights last December. Animal Kingdom will begin his stud career there next September and will likely shuttle to the Northern Hemisphere (probably Europe) beginning in 2014. It is believed he will be the first Kentucky Derby winner to start his stud career in Australia.
Joyful Victory Rolls, Sets Track Record
In late January Rick Porter’s Joyful Victory uncorked a track record performance leading from gate to wire in capturing the first ever running of the $400,000 Houston Ladies Classic at Sam Houston Race Park in Texas. Sent off as the 3-2 favorite, Joyful Victory was never seriously challenged as she spurted away in the stretch to score a decisive 4 1/4- length victory over her longtime rival Brushed by a Star. Her final time, 1:42.30, broke the track record for 1 1/16-miles that had stood since 1999. She also produced a career-high Beyer Speed Figure of 100.
For winning trainer Larry Jones, the mare’s training regimen at his winter base has paid big dividends.
“The intent was to get her to relax, and since no one went, she was very relaxed and comfortable on the front end,” explained Jones. "She's been training very well at the Fair Grounds (in New Orleans). We were hoping for a performance like this.”
"She had some good results last year, although it was kind of unfortunate that she only managed one win," said Jones of the daughter of Tapit who ran second twice and third twice in 2012. Joyful Victory picked up $240,000 for the Texas win and has banked $813,079 with five wins in 16 career starts.
Her next start is expected to be the $300,000 Santa Margarita (Grade-1) at Santa Anita on March 16.
“We took her out to Santa Anita last fall, and she seemed to like that track,” Jones said of a runner-up finish in the Zenyatta Stakes. “We would love to get a Grade-1 win under her.”
Jones’ focus is the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic, run at Santa Anita in early November.
“I’m not sure the summertime heat does her great, especially as hot as it was last year,” Jones related. “We could show back up by September. We could set up her schedule where if we have another hot summer, we don’t have to be racing. Our number one objective is to go to the Breeders’ Cup.”