Barry Irwin of Team Valor, owner of Animal Kingdom, Kentucky Derby 137 interview
Barry Irwin of Team Valor, owner of Animal Kingdom, Kentucky Derby 137 interview

Post Kentucky Derby interview with owner of Animal Kingdom, Barry Irwin of Team Valor

(Image and Footage : Thoroughbred Times)


Mick Goss Summerhill Stud CEO
Mick Goss Summerhill Stud CEO

Mick Goss

Summerhill CEOThe extent of South Africa’s internationalization in racing was plain to see on Saturday in the outcome to America’s most celebrated horserace. The winner belonged to Team Valor, whose principal, Barry Irwin, is the most enthusiastic punter of the virtues of South African-breds, while Animal Kingdom’s mother came from the good German stock of Maine Chance Farm owner, Andreas Jacobs.

In several respects though, Animal Kingdom was not the horse supposed to catapult his connections into the stratospheric heights of the 137th Kentucky Derby.

If trainer Graham Motion was going to snag his first Derby triumph, many reckoned his Wood Memorial (G1) ace, Toby’s Corner, was the man for the job.

If Team Valor’s partners were going to take the garland of roses home, it wasn’t supposed to be with a grass and synthetic specialist who’d never run on dirt.

And if jockey John Velazquez was ever going to add a win in the first leg of the Triple Crown to a résumé that features practically every other major accolade in the sport, champion Uncle Mo was supposed to be the colt to do the honours.

A record crowd of 164,858 (164,848 if our party hadn’t pitched up!) at Churchill Downs witnessed history as 20-1 shot Animal Kingdom collared Shackleford in the last 100 yards, to win the “greatest two minutes in American Sports.”

The tears that rolled out from behind Summerhill client, Irwin’s trademark dark glasses, betrayed only part of the emotional journey his connections had taken in the days since we lunched with him, wife Kathleen and studmaster, Craig Bandoroff on Tuesday. The withdrawal of hot fancy, Uncle Mo on Friday had left Velazquez with his third consecutive scratching of his mount (both previous favourites, too, Quality Road and Eskendereya) in three years. Irwin’s jockey, Robby Albarado, had been injured Wednesday, and in a move likely to be recalled by horseman for as long as Lester Piggott’s elevation at the expense of Bill Williamson aboard Roberto in the English equivalent 40 years ago (1972), Velazquez got his chance. “A lot of things happen for a reason. I guess it was my turn,” reasoned the seasoned veteran.

What Animal Kingdom achieved bucked a bunch of trends that had him overlooked, even in a wide-open field. The chestnut son of turf champion Leroidesanimaux was the first since Exterminator in 1918 to win off just four career starts, the first since Needles in 1956 to succeed off a six-week layoff, and the first to take the 1 1/4 mile contest having never tested over a dirt surface.

The colorful Irwin had the last remark. “I like to try and make some history when I can,” said the one-time BloodHorse turf writer. “Today we made a lot of history.” So endeth the word.

Mick Goss - Kentucky, USA