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ATOP THE HIGHEST MOUNTAIN

June 15, 2013

TDN

When Craig Bandoroff set out to develop one of Kentucky's leading farms and consignment companies in 1990, he wanted to work at the highest end of the market, and desired to trade the best quality bloodstock. That's why he named his farm Denali Stud--a term meaning "the great one," coined by Alaskan Eskimos to describe Mt. McKinley, the highest mountain in North America. On Mar. 30, 2013--23 years later--Bandoroff experienced his highest high in the racing game when Animal Kingdom (Leroidesanimaux {Brz})--whom he foaled, raised and sold and now owns a piece of through Team Valor International--won the G1 Dubai World Cup.

"After Dubai, I said to my son, 'We've been at the top of the mountain," Bandoroff reminisced. "There's no mountain bigger than this. You don't expect it, and I think when you get it you realize how fortunate and blessed you really are."

Next Tuesday, Bandoroff may find that there are even higher peaks to ascend upon when Animal Kingdom lines up as the heavy favorite in the G1 Queen Anne S. at Royal Ascot. The 5-year-old--now owned by Team Valor International, Australia's Arrowfield Stud and Darley--will become the first Kentucky Derby winner since Triple Crown champion Omaha in 1936 to race at the world's oldest and most prestigious race meeting. What's more, he looks to become the first Dubai World Cup winner to win at Royal Ascot since Dubai Millennium took the G1 Prince of Wales's S. in 2000, and the only horse in history to win the Kentucky Derby, Dubai World Cup and one of Royal Ascot's prestigious contests.

Before Animal Kingdom was a world-beater and an international phenomenon, he was one of about 80 foals frolicking in the pastures of the 700-acre Denali Stud in 2008. This was the result of a long-standing association between Bandoroff and Barry Irwin, chief executive officer of Team Valor International, which bred Animal Kingdom and purchased his dam, Dalicia (Ger), at a German auction for 400,000 Euros in 2005.

"We've both been in the business a long time, and have known each other through the years," Bandoroff said. "For a couple of reasons we decided to form a strategic alliance and it's kind of grown from that to today, where he keeps all his breeding stock in Kentucky here." Born Mar. 20, 2008, Animal Kingdom was the first foal from Dalicia, and was described by Bandoroff as "a problem-free, straightforward horse."

"He's one of those horses you didn't know was around because he didn't need surgeries and he wasn't getting hurt or needing extra veterinary care. He was just the kind you like."

In addition to being problem-free, Bandoroff noted that Animal Kingdom always received good grades on conformation.

"He was one that always made a good impression," he said. "After the Derby, I went back and got my notes--I keep notes on them from when they're babies from my inspections--and it always said 'Nice horse.' If I underline it that's an emphasis, and I'd written that a lot on his page, just 'nice horse, nice horse, nice horse.'

The following year, that nice horse went through the ring at Keeneland September as a means to dissolve the partnership that had bred him. He was purchased for $100,000 by Team Valor, and Bandoroff decided to get involved with the partnership that was to race him.

"He was always good looking, which I think was reflected in his price," Bandoroff explained. "$100,000 for his pedigree in that particular cycle of the market, which wasn't the best, is a very respectable price."

Later that December, while Animal Kingdom was receiving his early racetrack education with Randy Bradshaw in Ocala, Dalicia was sold to Japan's Shadai Farm in foal to Mr. Greeley for 230,000gns at the Tattersalls December Mare Sale. She has yet to produce another winner, with two foals by that former Gainesway sire to her credit.

Fast forward nearly four years, and Animal Kingdom-- now an earner of more than $8.3 million--looks to complete an unprecedented triple, and retire to his dual hemisphere breeding career as a Grade/Group 1 winner on dirt, turf and synthetic surfaces on three different continents. Could Bandoroff have ever guessed that the chestnut foal that flew under the radar around his paddocks would progress into one of the highest-rated horses in the world?

"You can't ever guess that from any of them--if I could I'd own 100% of him, because I'd have bought him for myself," Bandoroff quipped. "To think that they're ever going to develop into A, a Kentucky Derby winner, and B, something special, that"s the kind of stuff you dream about."

While completing the feat would no doubt be a dream come true, Bandoroff--who attended the Dubai World Cup and will don top hat and tails for the Royal Meeting next week--is remaining realistic about the difficulty of the task ahead of Animal Kingdom.

"This is a very tough thing we're asking of this horse," he noted. "You can read all this stuff about him being the favorite and even money and think all he has to do is show up, but I think you have to remember the fact that it's a straightaway and he's never done it, and the undulating course is also foreign to him. I have full confidence in him, and if he pulls this off it really isgoing to be an unbelievable testament to his quality."

He continued, "There comes a point in time, at least for me, where what you really want is for the world or the public to acknowledge that that's a good horse. You want it for the horse as much as you want it for anything. Seeing what the world thinks of him is really gratifying beyond description."

When reflecting back on Animal Kingdom's career, which has also included an Eclipse Award as Champion 3-year-old and two lengthy layoffs and rehabilitation from injuries, Bandoroff was quick to credit Irwin and trainer Graham Motion.

"Barry's done an amazing job plotting this horse's career, and he showed guts keeping the horse in training," he said. "Graham has just taken all his talent and tuned him like a fine instrument. None of it would have happened without them."

So where does Denali, which has sold more than $400 million worth of bloodstock and ranked among the nation's leading consignors every year since 2000,enter into the Animal Kingdom equation?

"Looking back on what our role was and how key we have been, I don't know, but when you read what Graham says about [Animal Kingdom's] attitude and his mind and that being the reason he can do this, I think that's where you can say we played a role," Bandoroff said. "We did something right creating a brain like he has. We're just grateful and fortunate and happy. I'm so happy that this horse can be over there representing America. The fact that we played a role in one that's going to go over there to represent us is really special."

--Kelsey Riley