ARCADIA -- Animal Kingdom is a Kentucky Derby winner, a horse who has shown talent by winning races on dirt, turf and synthetic surfaces.

He is tough, too. He fractured a hind leg in the 2011 Belmont Stakes and came back seven months later to win in South Florida.

In March, when he fractured his pelvis, most owners and trainers would have retired him.

Of course, he is worth something as a stallion prospect. But his owners, Team Valor International, and his trainer, Graham Motion, let Animal Kingdom rest and heal for the 29th running of the Breeders' Cup races. That was not their only surprising choice.

Although the $5 million Classic is the marquee race Saturday at Santa Anita, its best one this year, the $2 million Mile, will be run an hour earlier. That is when Animal Kingdom will line up against some of the world's best horses. Among them is the Irish-bred Excelebration. From France comes Moonlight Cloud. And then there is Wise Dan, the 9-to-5 favorite and a Horse of the Year candidate.

So why choose a mile sprint on grass over the Classic, a more tactical race on dirt and at the same distance Animal Kingdom won the Derby at 11/4 miles?

"He's the best horse I've ever trained, and at this stage of his career, it's a great opportunity to take a shot at this race," Motion said. "He's exceptional, and that's why we're doing something that's a little out of the ordinary, I guess. I just feel he's that caliber horse."


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Before the Derby, Team Valor and Motion appeared to be rolling the dice, as well. Animal Kingdom had won twice on a synthetic surface, finished second on grass, but had never tried the dirt. It paid off: it rolled to an emphatic 23/4-length win on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs.

The pelvic injury to Animal Kingdom required rest, not surgery, and in August, when the horse returned to training, Motion was impressed with his growth and development and suspected that grass might be his best surface.

"Everything has gone off without a hiccup," Motion said. "I realize it's a big undertaking, but I think this horse can do anything."

  • Hightail kicked off the two-day event with a win in the $500,000 Juvenile Sprint, giving trainer D. Wayne Lukas his leading 19th Cup victory at 77. Hightail ($32.80), ridden by Rajiv Maragh, edged favorite Merit Man by a nose, finishing six furlongs in 1:09.75.

  • Royal Delta won the $2 million Ladies Classic for the second straight year. The filly, trained by Bill Mott and ridden by Mike Smith, ran 11/8 miles in 1:48.8. Smith became the winningest jockey in the Cup races with 16. Bay Area-based jockey Russell Baze finished seventh with long shot Class Included.

  • Other winners were Executiveprivilege ($2 million Juvenile Fillies), Zagora ($2 million Filly & Mare Turf), Flotilla ($1 million Juvenile Fillies Turf) and Calidoscopio ($500,000 Marathon).

    The Associated Press contributed to this report.