Graham Motion says Velazquez right choice for Union Rags; Animal Kingdom improving

Really, the frustration began at last year’s Belmont.

That’s when Animal Kingdom, Graham Motion’s finest horse to date, was cut off and, while veering away, clipped heels and almost tossed his jockey. It took a thunderous run at the end – the colt’s specialty – to place sixth after winning the Kentucky Derby and finishing a close second at the Preakness.

Animal Kingdom was injured in that race, suffering a fracture in his left hind leg that would require surgery. He spent the rest of the year resting and rehabbing.

He returned to the track and won at Gulfstream in February, only to have his planned trip to the Dubai World Cup canceled when a stress fracture in the same leg was discovered.

While many recent Kentucky Derby winners have retired early and been sent off to stud, Motion continues training Animal Kingdom toward a return to the track. The colt jogged “one to two miles” in a field near one of Motion’s barns at the Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton on Tuesday.

“He continues to do really well, and has really done everything we’ve asked of him,” Motion said. “We’re going slowly with him, and he’ll just jog for another week or so and then we can gallop him. But he wasn’t sitting around that long this time and hasn’t lost as much muscle, so it’s easier to bring him back.”

As I wrote in my story for Wednesday’s paper, a commitment to ride Animal Kingdom in Dubai cost jockey John Velazquez a chance to ride Union Rags early in the year. But thanks to two troubled rides by the jockey who took his place, Julien Leparoux, Velazquez will get his chance aboard the promising colt at the Belmont. Union Rags figures to be among the top two or three horses chosen on the morning line after I'll Have Another, the colt aiming to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978.

Velazquez, of course, only ended up on Animal Kingdom after his planned ride, Uncle Mo, scratched and Animal Kingdom’s planned rider, Robby Albarado, missed a couple of days with a broken nose. So he’s hardly a stranger to riding a horse for the first time in a big race, and said his lack of experience with Union Rags won’t be a problem.

Motion happens to be close friends with Velazquez – they have children the same age, and spent several years working from the same tracks – and admitted as much before saying he thought Velazquez would fit Union Rags – also trained at Fair Hill, by Michael Matz – well. He thinks the jockey is dynamic enough to handle any sort of horse or race, and that his familiarity with Belmont will be a boon.

“He really does fit any horse,” Motion said. “He runs out front a lot but I’ve seen him be very patient on the grass. The thing is, with the Belmont, it’s like any big sporting even. The key for those athletes in big games is just to stay calm. He’s one of the best riders in the world, but on a day like that it’s about being able to come through. And he does. When the chips are down, when there’s all that pressure, he produces.”

Much of the horse-race observing world hopes he does. Union Rags was probably the most touted horse coming into this Kentucky Derby prep season -- in part because of his commanding win on the Belmont track last year in the Grade I Champagne Stakes -- and has yet to show why in a big race. He skipped the Preakness and has trained well. Whether he'll like the distance is an unkown, Matz said, but the Barbaro trainer has been a believer in this horse for some time.

Matz, as I wrote the day of the Preakness, can be terse. He told me -- as he has told several other reporters -- that Velazquez was the choice to ride Union Rags because he's "one of the best." He wouldn't say whether he thought the rider and horse were a good pair, or if Velazquez might be the right rider to break Union Rags from his recent habit of moving slowly early if he hits traffic. Maybe that's gamesmanship on Matz's part. He's intensely competitive.

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