In the Thursday morning sun and dew, Graham Motion walked in a circle in front of the grandstands at Fair Hill Race Course. He was wearing a microphone for NBC, speaking into a walkie-talkie, nursing a cold and wondering about all the things horse trainers wonder about.
Out on the race course, a swath of turf dedicated to Thoroughbreds since 1934, Breeders’ Cup Mile hopeful Animal Kingdom got ready for a key workout. Slated for 6 furlongs, the move involved two other horses and would be the 2011 Kentucky Derby winner’s final home prep for the $2 million Mile at Santa Anita Nov. 3.
Team Valor International’s chestnut jogged behind Lelaps, past the finish line, the Aintree Stand and the Fair Hill Stand (where the box seats are) and eased into a lope on the turn. Head cocked to the right, like he does, Animal Kingdom galloped strongly – pulling against David Nava’s hold and chugged around to the wire while looking for more rein. Accelerating out of the turn and into the long backstretch, he flew past the 6-furlong pole and Lelaps and took aim at another stablemate, Lake Drop, a quarter-mile ahead. Animal Kingdom accelerated again as Motion (up in the stand now) and assistant Adrian Rolls watched. Lake Drop made good use of his lead, kicking into gear on the turn. At the top of the stretch, Animal Kingdom ranged through on the inside and they finished the final quarter-mile together. Lake Drop won by a head or so, but neither horse was pressed in the final strides. Slightly uphill to the finish, Fair Hill’s final straight makes Churchill Downs look short. Both horses galloped out around the turn and down the backstretch before pulling up on the far turn just past the half-mile pole.
The work was demanding, and fast – especially for Fair Hill – as Motion clocked the son of Leroidesanimaux in 1:13 for 6 furlongs.
After a slower, more gradual, work over softer turf last week, Animal Kingdom put on his running shoes for this one – a balancing act Motion knows his horse must perform if he’s to contend against Wise Dan and some of the others in the Mile.
“It’s a fine balance because you don’t want to go to the Breeders’ Cup with a question of whether you’ve got a fit horse or not,” said Motion. “He had to have a serious work and that was a serious work. He definitely got a blow out of it. Last week, he seemed to do it easily and really he does everything so easily that you always question how much he’s gotten out of it. We don’t really have a horse that can work with him.”
Animal Kingdom has not run since winning an optional claimer on the turf at Gulfstream Park in February. That was meant as a prep for the Dubai World Cup, but he missed several months with an injury and has steadily built back to racing fitness at Fair Hill – using the dirt and Tapeta tracks at the training center and the turf course across Route 273 for his last five workouts (three at a half-mile, two at 6 furlongs). Motion used the course with Better Talk Now and Film Maker before their Breeders’ Cup starts and likes the combination of new scenery and demand the course (host of annual steeplechase races in May) provides. With ideal fall weather and maintenance by the state of Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources, the course (which sees fewer than 10 horses a week) is also in superb condition. The state charges a fee, but it’s well worth it.
"The gradual incline is the biggest thing," Motion said of the course which climbs steadily from the backside. "It makes for safer conditions and it lets horses get something out of it without working as hard or as fast as they would have to otherwise. It’s a great option to have. You have so much flexibility."
All being well, he will ship to Keeneland Monday and put in a final workout there Oct. 26 before flying to California from Louisville the next day.
NOTES: Fair Hill will also likely have a runner in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint in trainer Mike Trombetta’s Next Question, who won at Woodbine last week . . . In true Fair Hill fashion, the property has seen plenty of action in October – hosting a high-school cross-country meet on the race course Tuesday, Animal Kingdom’s breeze today, an international three-day event this weekend and a Thoroughbred horse show next weekend. The human runners will be back at it next week for the high-school regional meet.