Trainers of Kentucky Derby horses have heard worse nine-word phrases for sure, but Thursday morning’s call by Mike Goswell over the speaker system at Fair Hill ranks right up there.
“Loose horse, on the dirt, going the wrong way.”
Of course, at the time, Irish War Cry was on the dirt going the right way – about a half-mile into a fairly routine gallop. Trainer Graham Motion heard the announcement (everybody did) and winced though in the end none of it really mattered. The loose horse, another Motion trainee, wasn’t loose for long and never really broke out of a trot before being apprehended. If Irish War Cry noticed, he didn’t let on. The chestnut son of Curlin galloped a mile-and-a-half (ish) on the dirt after standing in at the main gap for a five minutes and jogging back to the five-eighths pole to get started. The approximate timeline was pretty simple:
• 7:31 to 7:34: Stand in and stare into space alongside lead pony Under Control. They both would have stood longer.
• 7:34 to 7:39: Jog the wrong way, with Under Control, to the backside.
• 7:39 to 7:43: Gallop. He was smooth, didn’t pull and skipped over the muddy surface. It’s impossible, but he looked taller than he did two days ago if that means anything.
• 7:44 to 8:00: Walk back to the barn with Under Control.
By just slightly after 8, he was walking the shedrow in a light blue Rambo sheet. He’d get a bath, walk some more, graze and probably sleep the rest of the day. Nice work if you can get it.
Motion liked Thursday’s gallop, other than the P.A. announcement.
Horse trainers worry. It’s what they do. Derby trainers worry more. It’s what they do.
“People ask me every day, ‘Are you excited?’ Motion said this week. “It’s a different kind of excited because you’re kind of on tenterhooks. I am, anyway. I don’t know what other trainers do, but you worry about something going wrong especially when you’re in a favorite’s type role. Having had things go wrong before, it’s hard not to think about that. That’s what you sweat. You just hope you have clear sailing and you get him there the way you can.”
So far, so good. Likely to be among the top five Derby choices, Irish War Cry hasn’t missed a thing since winning the Wood Memorial April 8. Like an honor student on a tight class schedule, Isabelle de Tomaso’s homebred eats, trains, sleeps, spends time in a salt vapor stall (to clear his respiratory system) and approaches whatever is next with the same attitude. He’ll gallop again Friday and Saturday, breeze with jockey Rajiv Maragh Sunday morning and ship to Churchill Downs Monday.
The New Jersey-bred won his first three starts at 2 and 3 – maiden race at Laurel Park in November, Marylander Stakes at Laurel on New Year’s Eve and the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park Feb. 4. Then came the son of Curlin’s only blemish – a seventh as the favorite in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream. Making like the top end of a Dixon Ticonderoga, he erased that moment by winning the Grade 2 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct.
There are four weeks between the Wood and the Derby May 6. Motion tried to map out a training schedule, not that it’s anything unique. Irish War Cry walked and jogged for about 10 days after the Wood, then started galloping on a steady progression. Thursday’s gallop looked like more work than Tuesday’s and Friday’s will probably be more than Thursday’s and so on. No, would-be equine schedule-makers, Irish War Cry did not breeze this past weekend. By design.
“I tried not to do anything different from what I’d do with any horse,” he said. “I’ve just tried to keep him very much in a routine, like I would keep a horse in who runs a huge race a month out from his next race, the biggest race of his life. What gets him fit is getting him to this point with these other races. He’s fit. We’re not going to change that.”
He breezed six days before the Wood, and will breeze six days before the Derby – though weather could still affect the schedule. If it looks like rain Sunday, Irish War Cry could breeze Saturday.
“I like breezing them on Sunday here,” Motion said. “The track is nice and quiet, it’s really good. Not many people will be on it and I just think it might work better.”
Thursday’s loose horse wasn’t loose long enough to impact Irish War Cry, who gives the impression that he might not be bothered if the freedom seeker joined in on the gallop. Fair Hill on the fourth Thursday in April is nothing like Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, but a little chaos does not seem to bother Irish War Cry.
“He is very straightforward,” Motion said. “He’s a little ornery around the barn and that’s kind of become a developing deal over the winter as he’s grown up. That’s the only thing that reminds me of (2011 Derby winner) Animal Kingdom, a little bit, because he got this toughness about him at this time too. I think part of that is these 3-year-olds, when they start winning and get good they get that attitude a little bit. They get the attention, they’re growing up still and I think it comes through with them. He’s a little bit tough, but on the track and everything else he’s good as gold. He handles everything really well. That’s going to be a big help (for the Derby).”