DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, April 1 (UPI) -- It was again looking bleak for American horses in Dubai as Saturday's World Cup program unfolded.
International travel and Meydan's Tapeta artificial surface left them with zero wins in the first seven of the night's eight Thoroughbred races. Worse, all the American runners finished poorly -- among them two Kentucky Derby hopefuls and the defending champions in the Breeders' Cup Turf and Breeders' Cup Sprint.
Despite the huge World Cup purses totaling $27.25 million on the night, another disappointment in the final and feature race could mean American trainers and owners might pass by Dubai in future World Cup races. That could be especially true if favorite Hunter's Light or African Story snared another World Cup win for Dubai's hometown, Eclipse Award-winning racing stable, Godolphin.
Three of America's finest runners were in the gates for the final race of the evening. There was Eclipse Award-winning Older Female, Royal Delta, steered by Mike Smith, the second-line favorite with a favorable No. 8 post.
Dullahan was in the No. 3 post with returning Hall of Fame-jockey Gary Stevens aboard. The horse had never lost on synthetics until his Dubai prep race last month at Meydan, a dismal 11th-place effort dismissed by the racing community because of travel fatigue and a late break.
Finally, there was Animal Kingdom, the 2011 Kentucky Derby winner. Considered by some pundits the least likely American contender, his chances seemed fainter still because of his late arrival, lack of any racing experience on Tapeta or in Dubai and an outside post position.
Remarkably, Animal Kingdom, running the entire race on the outside, powered by the U.S. mare Royal Delta to take a 3-length stretch lead, and then found another gear when challenged by British Champion Red Cadeaux to score an easy win in the night's biggest, and world's richest, race.
The Dubai World Cup victory gave an American horse its first Dubai World Cup win since Meydan Racecourse opened with its Tapeta surface in 2010. It was only the second World Cup Day score for any American horse on the Meydan Tapeta, where Kinsale King won the Dubai Golden Shaheen in 2010. That horse makes his racing home at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, one of only two Tapeta surfaces in the U.S. The other is Presque Islands Downs in Erie, Pa.
After last year's World Cup, Game On Dude jockey Chantal Sutherland said the surface was "sticky" and her mount found it "tiring." Even following this year's big American win, jockey Mike Smith said his mount, second favorite and consecutive Breeders' Cup Ladies' Champion Royal Delta, "didn't like the surface." She faded from the lead to finish 10th.
But the mix of sand, fiber, rubber and wax was just fine for the powerful, long-striding winner.
His unusual name, Animal Kingdom, is a play on the English translation of the name of sire Leroidesanimeaux, King of the Animals. But there was nothing playful and everything kingly about Animal Kingdom's performance.
"He is an exceptional animal," said trainer Graham Motion. "I'm emotional about this horse."
Barry Irwin, founder and chief executive officer Team Valor -- which bred, owned and managed Animal Kingdom -- used the occasion to underscore some concerns about racing in America.
"My thoughts coming into this race were, 'I hope he doesn't bleed here like every American horseman told me he was going to do without Lasix,'" said Irwin, alluding to the ban of race day medication in the UAE. "I was thrilled to death to win a race like this without medication. It means a lot to me, to the horse and to the breeding industry."
How good is Animal Kingdom in the pantheon of American racing stars?
"He is a very unique, unusual horse," said Irwin. "He's one of the few horses good enough to win any race. He can win a race like this at 1 1/4 miles and I would think at 1 1/2 miles based on how he ran in the Belmont. He's just a very unique horse."
After winning the Kentucky Derby, he lost a late-charge effort and a Triple Crown bid with a 3/4-length loss to Shackleford in the Preakness. After missing last year's Dubai World Cup due to injury, he came back to finish a strong second to Wise Dan in the Breeders' Cup Mile. Then came his Dubai prep race in February, the Gulfstream Park Turf, a runner-up loss to Point Of Entry.
"He had a race that would have knocked out a normal horse," said Irwin.
"That was a very awkward race," said Motion, haltingly.
In fact, it almost led to the removal of Joel Rosario as the rider because, said Motion, "For a horse as good as he is, we've been unlucky with our jockeys."
But Motion said, "I hate to see a jockey get yanked off a horse for one hard ride."
Now, both horse and rider are vindicated.
"I've dreamed of winning this race," mused Rosario. "As he was turning for home, he was even looking around, saying, "Where's my competition?'"
Animal Kingdom has been lightly raced. His Dubai World Cup win is his fifth in only 11 starts with five seconds and a troubled sixth in the Belmont. He was scheduled to come to Dubai for last year's World Cup, but those plans were put on hold for a year due to injury, his second, both forcing precious lost time on the racecourse.
The injuries are part of the explanation for his light racing career and may help explain the decision by his Team Valor International ownership to partner with Australia's Arrowfield Stud to begin his stallion career this year in Australia.
While those plans have not changed, post-race comments suggest they may be tweaked. Most talk suggests Animal Kingdom will head to Royal Ascot in June, joined by a returning Black Caviar.
The horse's connections deferred any comment about potential international plans, saying Animal Kingdom would enter stud "sometime within the next 12 months." The Southern Hemisphere breeding season begins in August.
The win may also have given a shot in the arm to Americans racing on the Dubai Tapeta who, even with this win, show a scant two wins in 35 attempts on the surface.
"People have been hard on the Americans and Americans have been hard on the Americans here," said Motion. "I think it's so hard to judge some of these horses running on the synthetic track, and this isn't a run-of-the-mill synthetic track. So, I guess it's a shot in the arm. Sure it is. Yes."
A crown can do that.