International Challengers Ready to Go
Animal Kingdom, trained in America by Graham Motion, has won two of the world’s major races – the Kentucky Derby and the Dubai World Cup – and is now aiming to succeed at Royal Ascot next week.
The five-year-old is running in the first race of the five-day meeting, the Group One Queen Anne Stakes over the straight mile on Tuesday, June 18.
Motion said: “What we are taking on is a huge challenge and he is probably a short price for what we are doing.
“When things look too good to be true, it makes me worry more. He still has to go out there and run his race, going into uncharted territory.
“There are so many variables. The weather, distance and doing the training here are all different.
“Animal Kingdom is a really laidback horse, like an old steeplechaser. He’s very happy at the moment and took a chunk out of my assistant Alice’s finger the other day.
“We’re not ducking anybody and it’s admirable that John (Messara) and Barry (Irwin) want to do this. It’s been a great experience and for me it’s a relief that all his work is now behind him. I worry more than I should.
“I’ll never train another one like him. The horse has had a chequered career because of his injuries so it is all the more remarkable how he has kept his form.
“I was concerned the day we worked him at Ascot recently because there had been quite a bit of rain and it was very soft by our standards but he seemed to handle it very well.
“He has handled the gallops in Lambourn and I’ve been coming back here every two weeks to see him. It took him two or three weeks to get adjusted but since then he has fitted in pretty well."
“Barry (Irwin) and I had talked before about coming to Royal Ascot but it wasn’t until the horse won the Dubai World Cup that we really decided to come here.
“What he did in winning the Kentucky Derby was pretty extraordinary – he had never run on the dirt before and he ran with six weeks between races.
“Coming back in the Breeders’ Cup Mile without a prep race is not usually done in America and we almost pulled it off.
“For me personally, I wanted to have an opportunity to prove the Kentucky Derby wasn’t a fluke. I knew this horse was a very special horse and I’m just so glad we got the chance to prove it in the Breeders’ Cup and then on the international stage in the Dubai World Cup.
“Royal Ascot is a bonus for me because I thought Dubai was his last race. I feel very fortunate that these guys have taken on this very sporting challenge at Royal Ascot.
“It was the end of a long-term plan to get there. In America, people have been sceptical about the horse because he is so lightly raced but he has missed a lot with injuries.
“In the States we have a lot of opportunities for easy pickings so it’s more of a sporting challenge to come here. It would be a shot in the arm for America if he was to win at Royal Ascot.
“There has been quite a lot of interest at home and the New York Times is coming over to cover the race, which is unusual.
“It’s tremendous to be running in a race that Frankel won last year and Sir Henry Cecil was one of the people I admired the most when growing up in Newmarket so it’s quite emotional.
“My parents knew him and he was one of the people who first captured my imagination to be a racehorse trainer. I grew up six miles from Newmarket and it’s somewhat surreal to be back here with a horse pointing at Royal Ascot. It’s very special and, for me, it’s a dream come true.”
Explaining the decision to use John Velazquez on Animal Kingdom, Motion added: “We had three choices – we could have stuck with Joel (Rosario), who had never ridden here before. We could have used a local jockey who had never ridden the horse or we could have a world-class rider like Johnny, who has won at Royal Ascot.
“For me it was a no-brainer, it’s no slight on Joel but Johnny is one of the best riders in the world. The horse has been unlucky not to have had a consistent jockey through his career but that has been more about circumstances.”
His trainer Mike de Kock commented: “I’m happy with him – it is never straightforward with all the travelling he has done. He’s been here for five weeks and seems to be coping with going uphill – it is completely different from going fast, flat and round.
“Ascot will be different to what he’s used to but he has been to the July Course to work and up the Long Hill gallop so he has had a good go at undulations. Horses cope with most of things we throw at them. I think the uphill finish at Ascot might suit him because he likes to get going late.
“He’s always been a proper horse. He showed us a lot in Dubai – when he works he flies.
“Shea Shea is a very strong and tough horse. He knows what he wants and needs a strong rider to restrain him on the gallops and getting to the start can be problematic. He needs a pony with him to go to the start and he’ll have that at Royal Ascot.
“He’s happy, his coat is good, he’s eating well and his work has been exceptional. I’m hoping he is in good form.
“His best form has been on fast ground though I’m told he has won on soft. Dubai was very fast and firm and he liked that.
“Christophe Soumillon has a good feel for the horse and he will ride.
“It would be great to have the win on the CV but if you look at his form, including in South Africa, he’s either won or come nowhere. There’s no grey area in between so we hope it’s another win at Ascot.
“He has always looked like he would be competitive on a world stage but it’s been a hell of a long road getting here. It is difficult for us to compete because of quarantine regulations – it is not a level playing field regarding South African participation.
“It’s not a pipe-dream – he has run some very quick times. I believe he’s the real deal and he has produced world-class form.
“I always knew he was good but I think his performance on World Cup night in Dubai was special. He stepped up again there.
“Winning would not just be important to us but it would help the South African horse internationally. Everyone enjoys watching our horses run abroad especially at a meeting with this sort of profile – there is a lot of interest.
“There is the weight and the pressure of a nation on him. We will be doing our best and he will be doing his best – if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.
“I have a few Royal Ascot runners and this is one meeting any trainer would like to have a winner at.
“I’ve left him in the Diamond Jubilee Stakes just in case something went wrong before the King’s Stand – you never know in this game - but he is to go for the July Cup following Royal Ascot.
“I think the July Cup will suit him – he is a winner of a Group One over six furlongs so I don’t think there is an issue with the trip. Soft Falling Rain is also being aimed at that race after needing more time.
“I would say that Shea Shea is right there with JJ The Jet Plane who was also an exceptional sprinter. It would be hard to choose between the two in terms of ability.”
“Importantly, he is enjoying Newmarket – in the week he has been here, he has settled particularly well into his surroundings. He is a happy colt and seems to be very relaxed. All good so far.
“He has not done any fast work yet – he will have one gallop tomorrow. He left Australia very fit so the gallop should put him spot on for Tuesday.
“We had a barrier trial at Flemington and the horse who finished second then, Linton, went on to win a Group One sprint, the Stradbroke Handicap, so Shamexpress’s form leaving Australia was very good.
“He is a horse I have always had a good opinion of but it was his win in the Newmarket Handicap which sealed the trip to Royal Ascot. The Newmarket is our biggest Group One sprint and has been a strong pointer to past Australian success at Royal Ascot - it was a pretty easy decision to take after that.”
Star Witness ran second to Prohibit in the 2011 King’s Stand Stakes for O’Brien.
The trainer revealed: “Star Witness was the champion two-year-old and three-year-old – a very precocious horse. This guy is getting there a bit later in his career but is equal to him now if not better.
“I think Shamexpress is coming here at the right time of his career – he is nowhere near as seasoned as some of the Australian horses who have run at Royal Ascot such as Takeover Target and Black Caviar because he is only a three-year-old.
“He’s a horse in a really good space and I think he is still improving – on an upward spiral. I expect him to show that on Tuesday and his next few runs should be the best of his career.
“We were close enough when running second (with Star Witness) to know that we had got most of the preparation right. We are sticking to a similar formula and hoping we can go one better.
“He is going for the July Cup at Newmarket as well and therefore we thought one run at Ascot would be what he needs.
“The reason we have chosen the King’s Stand Stakes over the Diamond Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot is because he has not run for three and a months and will be a bit fresh. It is also a stiff five furlongs which will be ideal for him at this stage.
“Hopefully, by the time of the July Cup, he will be looking for six furlongs. There has never been an Australian horse win the July Cup – but they have run very well.
“The track at Ascot is a bit different for us – most of our tracks are very flat. But this horse is beautifully-actioned and I don’t think the track will be a problem.
“Shamexpress ran behind Black Caviar in the Lightning Stakes before the Newmarket Handicap and was ridden quite aggressively that day – sitting right up on the speed with her and he did not run well with that pattern.
“So in the Newmarket, he was ridden differently – quite cold and smothered up and he finished really well. Craig got it right that day and he will be doing the job again on Tuesday.
“It would be fantastic to win at Royal Ascot. We were second with Star Witness and it is a great week of racing. Being that close and not winning has left me with the desire to come back here and succeed.
“Shamexpress is a very adaptable but most of our races are run on good to firm going and if that is the case I would be very happy.”
Sea Siren is another Australian sprinter but she is being aimed at the six-furlong Diamond Jubilee Stakes on the final day of Royal Ascot, Saturday, June 22.
The Fastnet Rock mare is trained by John O’Shea, whose assistant Bryce Heys has travelled over with her.
Heys said: “We have been here a week. It was a long time travelling with Sea Siren. She had to travel a bit in Australia – she flew from Brisbane to Sydney and Sydney to Melbourne before the flight to England.
“There is no doubt that took its toll but we have been very light on her since. We got her into the pool yesterday and I suspect she is back to where we want her to be.
“Royal Ascot’s six furlongs is definitely testing and she is going to have to adapt to that. Hopefully, she will be ridden with some cover to utilise her turn of foot.
“Her recent form has not been ideal as regards to coming to Royal Ascot. She had a long time off after Hong Kong last year and it has taken a bit to get her back. She is probably not far off where she was winning Group Ones last year.
“She got her toe out this morning (on the Newmarket gallops) and she will have a couple of pieces of work before the race.
“It is a daunting task at Royal Ascot but we have Ryan Moore in the saddle and he will ride her for the first time on Tuesday morning.
“We want to be drawn around the horses with the best chance in the race and she likes the ground fast.
“She is a delight to deal with, very laidback with a good constitution as regards her appetite and the work she can take. Her coat has come out again and her appetite is outstanding – she has not left an oat for three days now.”
Royal Ascot takes place between Tuesday, June 18 and Saturday, June 22.
The King’s Stand Stakes and the Diamond Jubilee Stakes are the first two British legs of the Global Sprint Challenge. The third and final British leg, the Group One Darley July Cup, takes place at Newmarket on Saturday, July 13.
Chris Stickels, Ascot’s Clerk of the Course, commented: “We’d had a dry start to June until we got three millimetres of rain last night Wednesday). I’m anticipating that the going will be good when I get back to Ascot today. There is no real rain expected until late Sunday and then into Monday when we could have a thunderstorm.
“Next week should be warmish with a threat of thunderstorms coming over from Northern France.
“We will have to watch the forecast but if it proves correct then I don’t envisage having to water the course again. Ideally, I’d like a mixture of good and good-to-firm ground for the first day of the meeting.”
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