It was the 3rd race on May 4th at Churchill Downs when Jockey Robby Albarado’s Kentucky Derby fate would ultimately be decided. During the post parade aboard Smoke’n Al, he was thrown forward and stepped on by his mount. Though the facial abrasions and broken nose looked pretty bad, Robby Albarado had no reason to believe that his mount on the eventual Kentucky Derby winner, Animal Kingdom, would be in jeopardy. For safe measure he took off the following two days in order to prepare for a big day on Saturday and ensured trainer Graham Motion that he would be fine and ready to go. However, one more domino in the equation was about to fall.
There was speculation throughout Derby Week that Uncle Mo would not be 100 % and would withdraw. Following his upset loss to Toby’s Corner at the Wood Memorial, a gastrointestinal tract infection was diagnosed and speculation about the colt’s health ensued. On the morning of the Kentucky Oaks, the day before the Kentucky Derby, the questions were answered when Uncle Mo was officially withdrawn.
The news on the Uncle Mo front left veteran rider John Velazquez without a derby mount. Johnny V has brought a lot to the sport with over 4,000 lifetime wins. He has won some big ones too. Similar to Albarado however, a Kentucky Derby victory was still a goal in progress. It was reported that Robby Albarado made it clear to Graham Motion that he wanted to stay in the irons but ultimately the decision came down to Team Valor’s, Barry Irwin. Following the news on Uncle Mo, Irwin made the call and replaced Albarado with Johnny V.
Make no doubt about it, that’s a tough decision to make. The Kentucky Derby is the pinnacle race of the sport. Not only does everyone want to be a part of the race, they strive to win it. It’s a very calculated trail that leaves a lot of trainers and owners thinking about ways to improve their chances. Obviously, Team Valor felt Albarado’s recent spill would affect those chances and elected to turn to a veteran rider that was as hungry as they were.
With Velazquez aboard, Animal Kingdom was the best on Derby day. Questions could be raised on if the switch is what ultimately moved this colt into the winners circle or if Albarado could have guided him to the winners circle as well. In my opinion, Animal Kingdom won the Kentucky Derby. Velazquez made all the right moves and rode a perfect race but I feel that Robby would have done the same. After seeing Albarado score a win in the Grade I Humana Distaff aboard Sassy Image prior to the Kentucky Derby, he obviously proved he was feeling good. But the move had already been made.
Heartbreak, disappointment on one side and victory, joy on the other. Like every sport, Horse Racing is a business and decisions are made quickly with only one thing in mind: Winning. Team Valor and John Velazquez made a very classy move following the Kentucky Derby by sharing a portion of the purse money with Albarado. Paychecks are great but the thrill of victory cannot be replaced and not enough to take the chip off my shoulder. I don’t think Albarado is happy about the way things went down so I expect it to fuel his competitive fire in the Preakness Stakes.
Two days ago it was confirmed by West Point Thoroughbreds president, Terry Finley, that Albarado will ride King Congie in the Preakness Stakes. Like Animal Kingdom this colt is not a regular on the dirt. After running poorly on dirt in his first two starts as a 2 yr old, Trainer Tom Albertrani move him to turf for his first career win. Last time out he ran gamely in the Bluegrass Stakes finishing 3rd by a nose.
So the plot thickens a little bit next weekend. Every year the Kentucky Derby winner has the so-called target on his back (or hind). Animal Kingdom’s just got bigger. Albarado has been a classy competitor by not going into too much detail about his disappointment or condemning Team Valor publicly. He even offered his congratulations. Quiet and polite in front of the media camera’s but in the irons………grit and determination to even the score. There’s a lot of work to be done to beat Animal Kingdom next Saturday, but with Pride in his corner, Albarado will be gunning for it.
Written by: Little Brink