The hours are being counted and the days are being crossed off the calender as the countdown is underway toward the final races in the career of Animal Kingdom.
The 2011 Kentucky Derby winner begins his final series of races with Saturday's $300,000 Kitten's Joy Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap. The 5-year-old is using the 1 1/8-mile grass stakes as his 2013 debut event and the first of his three last starts.
Animal Kingdom, trained by Graham Motion for Team Valor International, will follow his Gulfstream race with a trip to the United Arab Emirates for the $10 million Dubai World Cup on March 30.
"The big picture is getting him to Dubai. This race is an important stepping-stone," Motion said concerning the Turf Handicap. "Believe me, he's going to be ready to run, and it's not going to be easy. But the big picture is getting him to Dubai. It's always been our goal to get there."
Getting to the races has not always been easy for Animal Kingdom. He ran in all three of the 2011 Triple Crown races, including a second in the Preakness Stakes, but came out of a sixth-place finish in the Belmont Stakes with a leg injury and didn't race again until February of last year.
"I would have loved to have seen him be able to go out there and prove over and over again how great he is. But because he's been somewhat fragile, it's been kind of one race at a time," the trainer noted.
Unfortunately, Animal Kingdom wasn't able to follow the victory early last year at Gulfstream with another start in a timely manner. He once again injured a leg and had to sit on the sidelines until November.
Animal Kingdom returned to the track in the Breeders' Cup Mile on Nov. 3 and overcame a difficult trip to finish second to Wise Dan.
So the fact that the chestnut horse is racing again just a little over three months since his last start is a minor miracle.
Should things work out for Animal Kingdom on Saturday and he makes a good showing in the Dubai World Cup, then Motion and Team Valor's Barry Irwin have set his final career start for June in England at Royal Ascot.
"You just hope you get to each one. The trip to Ascot, if we could do that, would be the icing on the cake. To do that would mean he ran very well in Dubai. Otherwise, we wouldn't do that," Motion said. "To win the Derby and take the horse to Royal Ascot, how much better does it get than that?"
As he begins his last season of competition, Animal Kingdom can boast earnings of $2,327,500 in nine career starts with four wins and an equal number of seconds.