Under jockey John Velazquez, who won for the first time in 13 Derby starts, Animal Kingdom out-finished Nehro to win by 2 1/4 lengths. Mucho Macho Man was third and Shackleford finished fourth. The favorite, Dialed In, raced at the back of the 19-horse field and couldn't find enough late run, finishing eighth.
Animal Kingdom, a Kentucky-bred colt sired by the noted turf specialist Leroidesanimaux, started from the No. 16 gate and raced in mid-pack until the stretch turn. Around the turn, Velazquez got through between horses and to the outside. Inside the final furlong, Animal Kingdom just drew off to win with relative ease.
Velazquez originally was scheduled to ride the early Derby favorite, Uncle Mo, and Robby Albarado had the mount on Animal Kingdom. Albarado was hurt in a spill earlier in the week and, while he returned to ride Saturday, Team Valor International, the syndicate that owns Animal Kingdom, dumped Albarado and picked up Velazquez.
"It was a tough call," said Barry Irwin, who runs Team Valor. "I had to do what I thought was best for the partnership."
"Finally, one of those things goes my way," the winning rider said after getting Animal Kingdom over the 1 1/4 miles in 2:02.04. Velazquez had the mount on the likely favorites in three previous Derbies who were scratched shortly before the race.
"I thought I had a really good trip," Velazquez said. "When he pulled out at the five-eighths pole, I knew we were gone."
Animal Kingdom finished second in his first career start over Arlington Park's artificial track, won last October at Keeneland on another all-weather surface and then finished second on the grass at Gulfstream Park. His breakthrough was March 26 in winning the Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park, also over an artificial track.
Irwin admitted the win was an upset.
"I was surprised," he said in the winner's circle. "I mean, you're always hopeful … but when it did happen, it was a surprise."
Asked where Animal Kingdom will go next, winning trainer Graham Motion said with a laugh, "I'll talk to Barry About it." Obviously, the horse is headed for Pimlico and the Preakness Stakes, the second jewel in the Triple Crown.