I know Graham Motion well enough to know when he doesn’t want to answer a question, or when he can't really conjure a 566th answer to a question he’s been asked 565 times. But I usually ask anyway.
Last Tuesday, I asked. “So why was that last race so bad?”
And he answered, while walking away from me (a little) and toward a set circling the walking ring before going out to train.
"I don’t have a reason why and I’m tired of trying to explain it,” he said before trying to explain why – to the best of his knowledge anyway – he thought Irish War Cry ran so poorly in the Fountain Of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park March 4. After a romp in the Holy Bull in February, the race was supposed to be Irish War Cry’s next gear on the road to the Kentucky Derby. Win the Holy Bull in February, win the Fountain Of Youth in March, win the Florida Derby in April and maybe, just maybe, win the Kentucky Derby in May. Then Irish War Cry lost the Fountain Of Youth by 22 lengths.
And Motion got reminded why horse trainers never, ever, have all the answers and those who talk as if they do are lying – to themselves mainly.
In response to the defeat, and the tight Derby timetable, Motion changed everything. He skipped the Florida Derby, shipped Isabelle de Tomaso’s homebred colt back home to Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland, worked him with a talented 5-year-old, added a figure-eight noseband and targeted the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. And when Joel Rosario decided to ride Practical Joke in the Blue Grass at Keeneland on the same day, Motion changed jockeys too, tapping Rajiv Maragh. Finally, Motion skipped the Wood to saddle several runners at Keeneland over the weekend.
All of the change, other than that last bit (it made more sense to send assistant Adrian Rolls to New York) had to do with the circumstances. Thoroughbreds only get one chance to run in the Kentucky Derby and, if you’ve got a graded stakes winner in your barn with one bad race among his running lines, you better be sure before you decide to skip the biggest race of all.
“With the pressure that you’re on at this time of year, you kind of have to find out and see where you are,” he said. “A month ago, he was one of the favorites for the Derby. I can’t just suddenly get off the roundabout, right?”
Not if there’s nothing clearly wrong. Motion kept on steering and, in a jump from Derby contender to question mark and back to contender, Irish War Cry dominated the Wood. The chestnut son of Curlin rated behind Battalion Runner and a couple of others early, went after the favorite with three-eighths to go and pulled away in the stretch to win by 3 1/2 lengths. At the quarter pole, Maragh took a big look under his right arm for competition – and saw none. The blooming New Jersey-bred star won for the fourth time in five career starts, earning $400,000 as the 7-2 third choice.
Motion frequently uses the phrase, “Back in the game” when things go well with his horses and he will be saying it plenty around Fair Hill this week. He won the 2011 Derby with Animal Kingdom and would love to win a second while delivering a signature racing achievement to the 86-year-old de Tomaso, whose father Amory Haskell founded the modern-day Monmouth Park in 1946 and was a prominent breeder and national racing figure.
The Derby, its points system for entries and the North American emphasis on 3-year-old racing can put trainers in odd positions, and Motion was there with Irish War Cry. Clearly, the horse delivered a sub-par race in the Fountain Of Youth. The question was why? Motion blamed a cuppy racetrack and a “bounce” off a strong race in the Holy Bull, but it could have been anything really – from a simple bad day to an injury that hadn't revealed itself.
So he changed whatever he could, made sure his horse was healthy and gave it another go. Bettors will frequently forgive one bad race with a “toss the last” comment. Trainers too, only they sweat it a little more.
Twenty-six days until the Derby.