ASCOT, England — Queen Elizabeth II had made it look so easy. Sharing her carriage with Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, she led the royal procession uphill on the mile-long racecourse straightaway as if they were on an escalator. Britain’s monarch had no sign of tremor in her wave and Prince Charles smiled as if he were resting in the back of a Rolls-Royce.
Twenty minutes later, however, when Animal Kingdom and 12 other horses took to the hill like a cavalry brigade, it was apparent how draining that lush, postcard-perfect racecourse actually was.
This was supposed to be Animal Kingdom’s farewell and coronation as the world’s greatest horse of the moment. With his Yankee jockey in from New York to ride him, Animal Kingdom, the 2011 Kentucky Derby winner and well-traveled citizen of world, was the even-money favorite to run off with the Queen Anne Stakes.
He had looked like, well, a world beater last time out, getting home first in the Dubai World Cup, at $10 million the globe’s richest race. He was powerful and versatile with victories on dirt, grass and synthetic surfaces. His co-owner, Team Valor International, and trainer, Graham Motion, had studied the playbook and made all the percentage plays.
And Animal Kingdom had trained here as if he were a veteran of European racing, putting gas in his stamina tank as he ran uphill in preparation for Tuesday’s race.
So, the scene was set. America’s horse was going to take on one of the oldest and most elegant events in all of horse racing. The morning-coated, top-hatted throngs and the bookies standing on their boxes before the odds boards were all O.K. with it. They were happy the first Kentucky Derby winner in more than 75 years had made the trip and graced them with his presence.
And then the gates opened. Dreams are not official until your horse crosses the finish line ahead of the others, which is why they run the races in the first place. For nearly a half of the mile climb, Animal Kingdom looked like the horse most people thought he was. John Velazquez glided him outside, letting him loom easily in fourth place, looking ready at any moment to push the button that would ignite the colt’s thunderous turn of foot.
But as the race progressed, Velazquez became uneasy. The colt had wrestled with him early, expending valuable energy. Now, Velazquez felt Animal Kingdom tugging at the bit, felt his legs wobble as they headed up the hill. Still, he asked Animal Kingdom for one last burst from what has been a storybook career. The colt lunged, but then surrendered.
“Animal Kingdom is struggling,” the Royal Ascot announcer proclaimed ominously.
No matter how lovely the dresses and morning suits, no matter how much the crowd of more than 40,000 might have wanted Animal Kingdom to win, it was suddenly clear it was not going to happen. Instead of cheers, there was a collective groan of disappointment.
“He didn’t put much effort in —that’s not him,” Velazquez said. “He was flat.”
The horse who ended up scooting away from the field was Declaration of War. He was ridden by Joseph O’Brien, whose father, Aidan, is among the most decorated trainers in the world. And in the Queen Anne, he had given his son a machine to climb on to and bring home a winner.
“It got a little tight, but I was going exceptionally well,” O’Brien said.
Still, he had plenty to hold off Aljamaaheer and the fast-closing Gregorian. Far behind him, Velazquez and Animal Kingdom were fortunate to beat two horses and finish 11th.
It was a gut-wrenching defeat for Motion, who had said unequivocally that the colt was a once-in-a-lifetime performer and understood that he would probably never see another one like him. Bringing him here had been a throwback gesture, summoning memories of the iron horses of other eras. And for Motion, born and reared in England, it was the type of homecoming he dreamed about.
“I’m sorry it did not work out —it’s disappointing for everyone,” Motion said. “There was such a good reception for him.”
Animal Kingdom’s next stop is Australia and Arrowfield farm, where Arrowfield, Team Valor and Darley Stud, which is owned by the ruler of Dubai, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, hope that he passes on the genes that powered him to five victories, five runner-up finishes and more than $8.5 million in earnings.
But that is the future. On Tuesday, there were nothing but glum faces — on Motion; on Barry Irwin, Team Valor’s managing partner; and on 20 others in the partnership who made the trip from Texas, Arizona, Connecticut and all points between. They came, they rented their morning suits, but they failed to conquer.
Not that there was any shame in that. Omaha, the 1935 Triple Crown champion, could not get the best of Royal Ascot, either. And if nothing else, Animal Kingdom had provided everyone connected to him with a memorable experience in this classy cradle of the sport of kings, and queens.
“If I ever have the opportunity to do it again, then I would,” Motion said. “Absolutely.”