The Dubai World Cup and Memories of A Special ‘Animal’
By John Lhotka
We are just a little more than a month away from “The Richest Race in the World”, the Dubai World Cup (DWC). The DWC has taken place on the last weekend in March every year since 1996. Other than the Triple Crown races, I would argue that the DWC is the most exciting race in the world. It draws competition from all around the globe, from Japan to Great Britain to right here in the US. The race brings the best of the best together for a chance at a huge pay day ($10-million, to be exact) and worldwide praise.
Although Dubai now hosts the richest race in the world, Thoroughbred horse racing didn’t begin in Dubai until the early 1980’s. In fact, the Dubai Racing Club (DRC) wasn’t established until 1992, when Nad Al Sheba race course was opened. A year later, the track hosted its first showcase event: the Dubai International Jockey’s Challenge (DIJC). That eventually led to the creation of the Dubai World Cup in 1996.
North American trained runners have captured the DWC eight times, beginning with the late great Cigar’s dramatic win in the inaugural running back in 1996. Since then, the race has been won by the likes of Silver Charm, Dubai Millennium, the great Curlin, and Well Armed, who won by a record fourteen lengths in 2009.
Anyone who knows me knows my love for Cigar (see Cigar: Love at First Sight), but my favorite DWC came in 2013. The show was stolen by a Kentucky-bred who had overcome multiple injuries since winning the Kentucky Derby two years earlier. Of course, the horse I’m referring to is Animal Kingdom.
A son of Brazilian-bred 2005 Eclipse Award winning turf horse Leroidesanimaux, out of a German mare named Dalicia (a graded stakes winner on the turf), Animal Kingdom would’ve figured to have a predisposition to the grass. Prior to the Kentucky Derby, the Team Valor homebred had only won on “all-weather” surfaces at Keeneland and Turfway Park. Naturally, many people doubted whether he’d run his best over the dirt at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. To be honest, you can include me as one of those doubters. I thought he had a chance to hit the board, but win? Naw, not a chance.
My pick in the Derby that year was the big guy – at over 17 hands – Mucho Macho Man. Meanwhile, my wife, being an animal lover, naturally had me put $5 to win on Animal Kingdom. I think most horse players can relate to similar situations. At the time, we hadn’t moved down to southern Florida yet so we watched at my dad’s house in suburban Chicago. The entire family huddled around the big screen as post time drew near and the excitement grew. The field of 19 loaded into the gate, the bell rang, the gate flew open, and we were racing.
With John Velazquez aboard, Animal Kingdom departed from post 16 at 21-1 odds. He broke well and settled in about mid-pack. He ultimately steadied before making his move on the outside and blowing past several horses in the stretch. He went on to win by 2 ¾ lengths with a blazing final half-mile; a final half-mile time only surpassed by the great Secretariat. No horse since Exterminator in 1918 had won the Derby with only four previous races and no horse since Needles in 1956 had won off a six week layoff. Suffice to say, Animal Kingdom had overcome the odds.
Obviously, the Wife was ecstatic having cashed her very first Kentucky Derby winner. I was happy for her (just a tad bit jealous too). I remember my first Derby winner, Silver Charm in ‘97, an amazing feeling and one I continue to chase. I became a big fan of AK that day. The Derby winner had heart, skill, and determination – my favorite characteristics in a Thoroughbred race horse.
Unfortunately, Animal Kingdom didn’t fare as well in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, finishing second at Pimlico and out of the money on a sloppy track in New York. Shortly thereafter, it was discovered Animal Kingdom had a small fracture which required surgery and put him on the shelf for the rest of 2011. He recovered well from the surgery and was pointed towards the DWC in 2012. However, after winning a tune-up at Gulfstream Park, he suffered another fracture in the same leg. Subsequently, he was pulled from consideration and got an eight month break to recover.
Having overcome injury and history before, it was no surprise that AK came back to run a strong second behind two-time horse of the year Wise Dan in the Breeders’ Cup Mile in 2012. In that race, he finished ahead of the likes of European champions Excelebration and Moonlight Cloud. AK was back, and I was anxious to see what the future had in store for the strapping chestnut. Then, in December of 2012, in a somewhat controversial decision, a majority of interest in Animal Kingdom was sold to Arrowfield Stud. He would begin his stallion career in September of 2013 in Australia. But before he retired from racing, it was decided AK would try take another stab at the Dubai World Cup.
In 2010 the Dubai World Cup was moved from Nad Al Sheba Racecourse to the new Meydan Racecourse and it’s all-weather Tapeta surface. Since then, American-bred horses had really struggled on the surface, but in 2013 an all-surface American race horse would take center stage. But before AK & crew would ship to Dubai, he needed a tune up.
To my delight, Graham Motion decided that tupe up would come Feb 11, 2013 in the 9 furlong Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap at beautiful Gulfstream Park. When it was announced the race would be AK’s last on American soil, I immediately planned on making the 175 mile trip from Key West to Hallandale Beach, FL. A couple buddies and I hopped in the Jeep headed up the Keys for a day at the track.
It was a perfect day for racing in South Florida. We strolled up to the Yardhouse, PPs in hand, for lunch, and a few microbrews. We were ready to place some bets and cash some tickets. After a few races it was pretty clear I wasn’t striking gold, so I decided to sit back and get ready for the main event. It was clearly a two horse race between AK and the champion turfer Point Of Entry. The perfect exacta box and go-home-a-winner situation.
Having seen Animal Kingdom on the tube, I knew he was a good looking horse, but when I first saw him with my own two eyes I was in awe. Hands down, he is the most impressive Thoroughbred I’ve ever seen up close. I was able to snap a couple of great pics and then it was time for the Derby winner and the champion turfer to duke it out. As expected, the race came down to the two of them. POE was able to gain the upper hand and finish AK off in impressive fashion. Animal Kingdom finished a solid second in what turned out to be the perfect tuneup. I grabbed my $2 in profit and headed home a happy human ready for the Dubai World Cup.
The 2013 DWC featured 12 of the best horses in the world. AK was up against the likes of fellow Americans Dullahan and super mare Royal Delta, as well as Red Cadeux (GB), Planteur (IRE), and African Story (GB), who would go on to win the 2014 DWC. AK would be ridden by Joel Rosario, the same jockey he had for the Derby victory and one of the best in the world.
It’s funny what you remember when your favorite baseball team wins the World Series or hockey team wins the Stanley Cup or, in this case, one of your favorite Thoroughbreds wins the richest race in the world. It was the last Saturday in March and I was stuck at work, where it was really busy. I set my alarm so I wouldn’t miss the race and got back to work. As the field approached the starting gate, my phone rang with the call to post (my ringtone) and I asked the racing gods for five good minutes so I could sit down and watch the 18th running of the Dubai World Cup.
Animal Kingdom was made the third favorite at 11/2 so I threw a 20 on him and crossed my fingers. It was as impressive a race as I’ve ever seen and one of my favorites of all-time. AK tracked the early leader Royal Delta, took the lead in the straight and pulled away. He held off a late challenge by Red Cadeaux to win by 2 lengths. I was jumping for joy in the middle of the office with a couple “hell yeahs” thrown in there somewhere. I took a minute to watch some post race festivities, collect myself and then went back to work a few dollars richer.
Animal Kingdom became the first American-trained winner of the DWC since the surface change from dirt to synthetic in 2010. He would have one more race in the Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot, finishing a disappointing eleventh, before officially being retired to stud. Although I really miss Animal Kingdom on the oval, all you have to do is go on Twitter during foal season and you’ll see little AK’s dropping left and right. AK’s future looks bright as a sire and I look forward to seeing his progeny on the track very soon.
Meanwhile, the 2015 Dubai World Cup brings with it the hope and anticipation of another potential American winner. California Chrome will carry the flag for the U.S. and could send his “Chromies” into hysteria if he can score the victory. The surface change from synthetic back to dirt will also benefit Chrome, and any other American runners who might show up, tremendously. I love this time of year. From the DWC next month, to Derby and Triple Crown preps, to the first weekend in May, it’s time for horse racing fever. So, chomp down on the bit, dig in, and enjoy the ride.