LOUISVILLE (Reuters) - The glorious uncertainty of horse racing produced an unlikely winner of the $2.2 million Kentucky Derby on Saturday when Animal Kingdom stormed to victory in the 137th Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs.
A record crowd of almost 165,000 let out a mighty roar as John Velazquez, who only got the ride when his own horse was scratched and Animal Kingdom’s original jockey was injured in a freak accident, surged into the lead approaching the shadows of the iconic twin spires.
Riding high on emotion after a bizarre chain of events led him to Animal Kingdom’s saddle, Velazquez kicked clear to win his first Kentucky Derby at his 13th attempt.
“I guess it was meant to be,” Velazquez said. “A lot of things happen for a reason.”
Animal Kingdom, a longshot who started at odds of 20-1, was untroubled in his run to the wire, taking out the first leg of American racing’s Triple Crown by 2 3/4 lengths .
Nehro, who had briefly looked the winner when he grabbed the lead at the top of the straight, finished second, while Mucho Macho Man came third, a neck behind the runner-up.
The 5-1 favourite, Dialed In, could only manage eighth after being last in the 19-horse field for most of the mile and a quarter trip.
“He had a good trip,” said Dialed In’s jockey Julien Leparoux. “It went the way we planned it in the back but they didn’t back up to us today.”
Velazquez, born in Puerto Rico, was booked to ride the one-time favourite Uncle Mo but looked destined to miss America’s greatest race when the colt was scratched on Friday because of a mystery illness.
But the 39-year-old jockey picked up the mount on Animal Kingdom on the eve of the race when the horse’s original jockey Robby Albarado broke his nose and was kicked by a horse in a midweek race.
“In this business, it’s a roller-coaster,” said Velazquez. “I’ve been on the other end as well.”
Animal Kingdom’s English-born trainer Graham Motion also captured his first Kentucky Derby winner after cursing his bad fortune earlier in the week.
His Wood Memorial winner Toby’s Corner, one of the early favorites for the race, was withdrawn a few days ago after suffering an injury, leaving the less-fancied Animal Kingdom as his lone runner.
“Somebody said are you surprised to win with a second-tier horse and I said ‘I’m not sure we would categorise him as a second-tier horse,” Motion said.
“He’s just a very special horse and I was so impressed with how he handled everything.”
Despite winning two of his previous four career starts, Animal Kingdom was considered an outsider to win, paying $43.80 for a $2 win bet in one of the most open Derbies in years.
The chestnut colt was unusually bred, sired by Brazilian-miler Leroidesanimaux out of the German mare Dalicia, and had not raced for six weeks.
His other races had all been on grass and synthetic tracks and horses seldom contest the Derby without having at least one run on dirt.
But Animal Kingdom had no problems adapting to the surface, sprinting clear of the pack when he changed strides after rounding the last bend.
“This is the race that we all want,” said Velazquez. “It’s a dream come true for all of us.”
In keeping with tradition, the race was preceded by the singing of “My Old Kentucky Home” and the winner was draped in a garland of red roses as the massive crowd packed into the course to watch the race, dressed in an array of outfits and sipping on mint julep drinks.
The Irish-trained Master of Hounds finished fifth while Pants on Fire, ridden by Rosie Napravnik, the only female jockey in the race, was ninth.
Nehro, ridden by Corey Nakatani, looked set to win when he surged to the front at the top of the straight but could not hold off the fast-finishing Animal Kingdom.
Mucho Macho Man, whose trainer Kathy Ritvo is a heart-transplant survivor, battled on well to take third, just ahead of Shackleford, who led the field when they passed the post the first time.
Editing by Dave Thompson; To query or comment on this story email email@example.com