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Sunday, June 23, 2013

by Craig Bandoroff  TDN

My friend Barry Irwin tells me I'm not a writer, but I guess I fancy myself as one anyway. I thought I'd share my Royal Ascot experience and the conclusion of our amazing journey with Animal Kingdom.

As you all know, it didn't quite end the way we hoped. After time to engage in my own post-race analysis, I have to agree with Barry's opinion--it was all lost in the paddock. I was standing close to Animal Kingdom when Elusive Kate walked by him and it was like a light switch was turned on. His demeanor changed from focused competitor to crazed and excited. I wasn't as smart as Barry, not realizing what it meant immediately, but the more I observed him not settling down, the more concerned I became. When I saw the terrible time he was giving Johnny warming up, I feared we were in trouble. For the first half of the race I was hopeful as our boy laid close and I thought we still might see his amazing explosive turn of foot when Johnny pushed the button and he left the field in the fumes of his afterburners as he did in the Derby and in Dubai. But this time, the chamber was empty, the pin popped the balloon and our hero was left behind.

Even though I know better, having spent most of my life in the industry, initially I was crushed and disappointed. I was despondent for my four-legged hero and those who plotted and executed this amazing challenge. But that has given way to only pride in this fine horse and my association with a team brave enough to take on the task.

Barry Irwin, John Mesarra and Sheikh Mohammed are to be commended and thanked. The guts they showed taking this valuable horse and exposing him to this amazingly difficult test is to be admired. Few in racing today are willing to try such a thing and gamble like this. It was a sporting challenge greatly appreciated by the English, who embraced our horse and the magnitude of the task at hand. But isn't that what racing is about and needs more of? The guts and gumption to dare and risk defeat? And was it worth it? Unequivocally, yes. It appears Animal Kingdom lost nothing in defeat. Maybe he hasn't ascended to the level of an all-time great, but no one who I spoke to seems to think his reputation was tarnished. And to be a passenger on this bus was a gift from above, as I've expressed many times.

A top horse like this takes you places you never expect to be. The winner’s enclosure at the Kentucky Derby and Dubai World Cup. The paddock and owners’ enclosure at the Preakness, Belmont, Breeders’Cup and the most prestigious race meet anywhere, Royal Ascot. Maybe Cinderella didn't come to the ball this time. But I now have a better understanding about what makes horse racing the special sport it is. Why some English monarch said way back when, "My kingdom for a horse."

The story didn't end like we hoped and I regret the world didn't see Animal Kingdom at his best on his last day. I feel bad for Graham, Alice, and David Lanigan, who put so much time and effort and their heart and soul into pulling this off. I'm indebted to them and Barry Irwin for trying.

I have the most beautiful head shot of Animal Kingdom, taken by Mathea Kelly, as my screensaver. He has a pensive, thoughtful, regal look in his eye. I can't imagine ever changing it, as it is the first thing I see many times a day when I reboot up my iPad. What this picture will remind me of most of all is what two people said to me in the aftermath of the Queen Anne. The first said it to me shortly after the race when I must have had a dejected look to my face and posture. "You know Craig, they aren't machines. They are horses." And isn't that why we respect the special ones and love them so much? Like life, they can be unpredictable and disappoint. But after the moment passes, we realize once again how lucky we were to have them in our lives.

So now, returning home, I can get back to the basics. On my evening walks on my farm, I will peer into the fields, walk amongst the foals and yearlings, and wonder if we will raise another of his kind again one day. Perhaps, and hopefully we will, but often I will think of this wonderful horse and the joy he has given me and so many others.

God speed, big boy. Thanks for the ride. It was more than I could have ever dreamed or hoped for.

Craig Bandoroff’s Denali Stud foaled, raised and sold Animal Kingdom.
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