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Animal Kingdom rides to victory in Kentucky Derby 2011 before record crowd of 164,858

It was only his fifth race and his first on dirt, but Animal Kingdom unleashed a powerful stretch run for an electrifying 2¾-length victory over Nehro in Saturday's 137th Kentucky Derby.

A Churchill Downs crowd of 164,858 — largest in Derby history — saw John Velazquez maneuver Animal Kingdom from 12th, kicking into gear rounding out of the far turn and taking the lead with a little more than a sixteenth-mile to go.

It marked a stunning turn of fortune that landed Velazquez and trainer Graham Motion in the Derby winner's circle for the first time after both appeared to have seen their best hopes dashed earlier in the week.

Velazquez's scheduled mount, reigning 2-year-old champion Uncle Mo, was withdrawn from the Derby only the day before because of an illness. Motion's Toby's Corner, winner of the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct and seemingly the stronger of the trainer's two Derby hopefuls, was hurt earlier in the week.

“This is the race we all want,” said Velazquez, who picked up the mount on Team Valor International's Animal Kingdom after Robby Albarado was hurt in a spill Wednesday. “… Now I can say I have a checkmark on that one.”

Though crushed to lose Toby's Corner, Motion still believed he had a big shot with Animal Kingdom.

 “This is just extraordinary,” he said on the winner's circle podium. “This horse was so powerful today. Johnny gave him an amazing ride. He's just a magnificent animal.”

Animal Kingdom, winner of Turfway Park's Vinery Racing Spiral six weeks earlier in his first stakes appearance, ran like a seasoned pro in the Derby field of 19 three-year-olds. Velazquez's instructions were to keep him out of trouble, and he followed them to perfection.
He had Animal Kingdom safe in the middle of the pack much of the way before shooting between horses with about five-sixteenths of a mile to go. He quickly surged into fifth place and was gaining on the leaders from the outside.

“He gave me that feeling, man, he was running,” Velazquez said. “I said, ‘Well, let me just save him a little bit.' When I got to the eighth pole, I asked him for everything I can. He got to the lead and kept running.”

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