BALTIMORE — Animal Kingdom won’t be sneaking up on anyone — even coming from behind.
The colt who came out of nowhere to win his first race on dirt in the Kentucky Derby is favored to win the Preakness Stakes on Saturday.
“I feel more relaxed than I have all week,” trainer Graham Motion said Friday. “I think I’ve done what I can do and it’s really out of my hands now. The nerve-racking stuff is just getting the training done and just trying to keep things straight.”
If Animal Kingdom can repeat his Derby success in the $1 million Preakness, he’ll set himself up for a Triple Crown try in three weeks in the Belmont Stakes.
It’s been 33 years since Affirmed swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont to become horse racing’s 11th Triple Crown winner.
Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito, who will saddle Dialed In, isn’t ready to anoint Animal Kingdom just yet.
“I’ll become a fan of Animal Kingdom if he keeps going on. I’m not saying Secretariat, Seattle Slew or Spectacular Bid yet,” he said, ticking off the names of previous greats.
“He’s done so many things that are so unusual; he just may be a very good horse. Hopefully, our little guy has something to say about it.”
Dialed In is the early 9-2 second choice after finishing eighth as the beaten favorite in the Derby. Zito hasn’t lost any confidence in his horse, who rallied late to make up a lot of ground two weeks ago.
“I still think, and not because I have him, that he’s still the best 3-year-old. That’s my opinion,” he said. “We’ll see what happens with Animal Kingdom, and there are so many other good horses in the race.”
Animal Kingdom will break from the No. 11 post, with Dialed In just inside, in post 10.
The biggest question surrounding Animal Kingdom going into the Derby was whether he could run on dirt. His pedigree suggested he was more of a turf horse, and he had run four times on synthetics and once on turf leading into the biggest race of his young career.
“Running him on the synthetic, it takes away their star power,” trainer Bob Baffert said. “When he got on dirt, he sort of separated himself from the pack. He’s definitely the horse to beat.”
Animal Kingdom’s 2 3/4-length win at Churchill Downs answered the skeptics. He figures to be nearly as fresh as some of his rivals, with the Preakness being just his second race in eight weeks.
Still, Animal Kingdom hasn’t scared away the competition. The Preakness attracted a full field of 14 horses for the first time since 2005, including nine that didn’t run in the Derby.
“It’s going to be about staying out of trouble, very much like it was in the Derby,” Motion said. “Fourteen horses is a lot of horses to navigate, especially when you’re the one they’re gunning for. The track is possibly a little tighter, the surface is probably a little different from Churchill Downs. My horse has shown he can handle the dirt.”
The Preakness has five fewer starters than the Derby, making for less of a calvary charge in the early going of the 1 3-16-mile race.
“Most of the time all the best horses are running in the Derby,” said Todd Pletcher, who trains newcomer Dance City. “If you have a later developing horse and a fresh horse, it’s doable.”
Animal Kingdom galloped 1 1/2 miles on the synthetic track at Fair Hill Training Center on Friday. He’ll make the one-hour trip to Pimlico by van early Saturday morning.
Motion’s stable is based in the Maryland countryside, and he wanted to keep his Derby winner out of the racetrack fray as long as he could.
“It’s the first time he’s gone through all this stuff so he’s going to do it his way. I can’t blame him,” said Baffert, a five-time Preakness winner who will saddle Midnight Interlude.
After rain much of the week, the forecast calls for sunny skies and highs in the low 80s, ensuring Pimlico’s dirt track will be fast.