The Eye of the Stormby Christina Olivares

An Insider's Look Comments Off on The Eye of the Stormby Christina Olivares
Aron Wellman has been a family friend of mine since childhood. We grew up on the 18th Street beach in Del Mar together; spending each day with other families and friends in the racing industry. In 2008, Aron became Vice President of Operations for Team Valor International. For this “Derby Recap” blog, I decided to interview Aron to get his unique perspective on Animal Kingdom’s win in the 137th Run for the Roses. These are his words: The whole thing is surreal. I think I’ve experienced every emotion possible in the last 72 hours. We were quietly confident in Animal Kingdom since his win in the spiral. But….it’s the Derby….you need to be talented AND lucky to win it. A lot had to go right in the six weeks between the race at Turfway and the Derby. Initially, we had planned to train him at Churchill for the entire two weeks leading up to the Derby. But then with all the weather and rain they had in Kentucky, we had to call a few audibles and keep him over the polytrack at Keeneland a little longer. His work three weeks out from the Derby was a good work, but it didn’t go as planned. He ended up working about a mile when in reality we wanted about half that. His work two weeks out from the Derby was a company work with another one of our horses; unfortunately his workmate was just spinning his wheels down the lane and didn’t really engage Animal Kingdom in the stretch. Again, not bad….but not what we wanted. So when we finally did ship him to Churchill and scheduled his final work over the dirt, there was no margin for error. This was it. Let’s see what he’s made of on conventional dirt. The work was nothing short of exceptional. Not only was the Team Valor team pleased, but so was trainer Graham Motion. I even had phone calls from some local clockers telling me he looked awesome over the track. From that point forward we just had to keep him healthy and happy. We were really lucky Derby week. Everything went off without a hitch! I think the moment it hit me that we really could win this thing was when we schooled him in the paddock on the Thursday before Derby….he was so cool, handled everything like a pro….nothing seemed to bother him. Graham Motion and I had a moment on one of the benches outside the paddock that was one of those “wow” moments. His disposition and physicality made him a man amongst boys. This could be it. He could be the one wearing that garland of roses in 48 hours. On the walkover he was so impressive. Again nothing bothered him. Somehow we all remained extremely calm and I think it was because he gave us this vibe that just said “I can handle this guys….no nerves necessary….get your game face on.” Animal Kingdom’s demeanor combined with the team Graham has assembled allowed us to stay calm and again quietly confident in the mass of people, noise, and commotion. David Rock was unwavering in his steady demeanor. Heather Craig has such a positive energy and attitude and she’s always right there on top of everything. Graham even told NBC he wasn’t nervous at all. We were in the eye of the storm that is Derby mania. Of course as they got closer to the gate my heart started racing. I was in section 318 with our Team Valor partners and had planned to talk everyone through the race. It’s kinda one of those things that I guess I’ve always done casually but this was the one time they were counting on me and my eye to know where he was in that 19 horse field. Going in to the first turn, I just wanted him to be comfortable…..clear, but not too wide…. And not hampered in any way. I truly believe you can lose the Derby in the first turn. He actually broke about half a step slow. The first time he went by us I said to the team, “he’s in a great spot; he’s travelling well, in the bridle and in a good rhythm.” So far, so good. Out of the turn was the same….he still had energy, he was taking the dirt well and still in a rhythm. It was one thing for him to work well over the dirt in the mornings. But would he handle the kickback ok and still keep running? Again, so far, so good. Coming in to the far turn I lost him. At first I thought he was clear on the outside but he was actually very much in the middle of the field. I didn’t realize he had to make such a decisive split between horses to maintain his momentum. All I could think of as I looked at the sea of horses coming off the bend was where is he? And then, there he was! The red cap popped out from between runners. I yelled, “He’s got dead aim!” I knew Nehro had the jump on us and could see that he was making a good move. Inside the eighth pole it was clear…..Animal Kingdom was steamrolling down the stretch. Was anyone coming from behind??? Could he catch Nehro? No. And Yes. For about the last three-sixteenths of a mile this sense of euphoria came over all of us. It was clear….he was ROLLING….we’re gonna WIN!!!! For those last few strides we were seeing it with our eyes but not really processing it. As he crossed the wire that moment was incomprehensible emotional. We had just won the Kentucky Derby. As we were escorted down to the winners circle and on to the grass everyone was embracing…..hugging, laughing, crying, and screaming. We were in this sea of humanity that was bursting with love and support. It was really special for me to have my wife, Talya, there with me. We had a moment on the way down that I will never forget. Barry Irwin and I had a moment too. To have accomplished a feat like that for our partners was always a dream. Now, it was a reality. It was incredibly emotional for us to realize this achievement because of all the blood, sweat and tears we have put in to our stable…..in Barry’s case, from day one. This crowning achievement comes after decades of work on his part. For the past thirty-three years I had watched people win the Kentucky Derby always hoping it would happen to me. And here it was. I am humbled by this experience and to share it with such wonderful people like Graham and his wife Anita, and Johnny and his wife Leona made it gratifying beyond my wildest dreams. Johnny’s agent, Angel Cordero was overcome with emotion and so vulnerable. You could see the joy and pride he shared with Johnny. It was like a movie playing out before your very eyes. At one stage my wife and I looked out into the grandstand. It was just this sea of humanity and all eyes from the top of the grandstand to the bottom of the apron were on our horse. Once again, we were in the eye of the storm swirling around Animal Kingdom. My wife and I took a moment to take it all in….visually and emotionally. He was captivating in his glory. Hearing the story from Aron’s perspective this morning gave me chills. And what is even more exciting is just how “freaky good” this horse is. He won the Derby with his ears pricked! As if it wasn’t overly challenging. Now, it’s off to Baltimore, which for Maryland based Graham Motion will be a special few weeks. Good luck Animal! We’ll be rooting for you!

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