The attention, the questions, the optimism around the barn, the random people who stop by looking for a glimpse of one horse – this feels familiar to Adrian Rolls. Because he’s been here before. And doesn’t want to get ahead of himself.
Chief assistant to trainer Graham Motion, Rolls knows what it’s like to have a Kentucky Derby contender three weeks before the race. He also knows what it’s like to have it all come part. In 2011, Rolls oversaw the training of Toby’s Corner who won a Laurel Park allowance in January, Aqueduct’s Whirlaway Stakes in February and Aqueduct’s Grade 1 Wood Memorial over heavily favored Uncle Mo in April. The Florida-bred chestnut was headed to the Derby, until he came up lame four days before the race and didn’t run for almost a year.
That’s why Rolls won’t let himself get too far down the path when talking about 2017 Wood winner and Derby hopeful Irish War Cry. The New Jersey-bred chestnut spent the winter in Florida, but joined Rolls at Fair Hill Training Center after a disappointing seventh in the Fountain of Youth March 4. Isabelle de Tomaso’s homebred righted the Derby ship with a powerhouse victory in the Wood April 8 and is 19 days from a start in the $2 million classic.
Rolls won’t count the days, no matter how you ask the question. In the winner’s circle at Aqueduct, reporters tried.
“What do you think of his chances in the Derby?” someone asked.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa,” Rolls said. “Don’t even go there.”
Predictably, the follow-up came around: “Well, when are you going to like him?”
“When he gets on the track and he’s in the gate.”
Rolls doesn’t say much on a good day. On others, he says nothing. But don’t mistake the quiet for lack of thought.
He’s seen pretty much everything over a lifetime in racing in England and the United States. As part of Capt. Tim Forster’s staff in England, Rolls was the “lad” in charge of 1985 Aintree Grand National winner Last Suspect. Rolls came to the U.S. in 1989 to ride jump races for Jonathan Sheppard, but soon moved to a job with Bernie Bond in Maryland. There, Rolls met Motion and they’ve been a team ever since – through wins and losses, highs and lows.
The experience tells Rolls to be conservative, to check the expectations.
“Anything can happen, you just have to take it as it comes,” he said while watching a set train last week. “We did this with Toby’s Corner and the day before he was going to ship it all went wrong. Day to day, day to day.”
That approach was on full display with Irish War Cry in Florida this winter. After two wins late last year at Laurel Park to start his career, he won Gulfstream Park’s Holy Bull to leap into the Derby discussion. The March 4 Fountain of Youth was targeted as the next step, but Irish War Cry tripped on the landing – finishing almost 22 lengths behind winner Gunnevera in seventh as the even-money favorite. Motion sent the horse home to Fair Hill, to Rolls, with eyes on the Wood as a back-up plan. If Irish War Cry didn’t run well there, the Derby was out of the question from a points standpoint and from any standpoint really.
“It was so bad,” said Rolls of the Fountain of Youth. “As soon as he got past the half-mile pole I was like, ‘he’s done.’ He should have run better than that, he should have hit the board at least. He just didn’t run a lick that day. I think it’s good that he got back here. He’s nice and relaxed here and Graham said he got on the muscle in the barn and stuff and was just real aggressive in Florida. He’s not like that at all here.”
One breeze at Fair Hill, 6 furlongs in 1:13.40 in company April 2, put the Wood in play. Rolls shipped up early with the horse, who got a chance to get acquainted with Aqueduct and new jockey Rajiv Maragh.
“The first day he was looking around and he was kind of off the bridle and things and I was like, ‘OK, buddy . . .’ He was just kind of dull really,” Rolls said. “The next day we took him to the gate and stood him and when he came back, Rajiv said ‘He was a little bit different this morning.’ He had a horse in front of him and he was trying to catch him.”
Irish War Cry was just as focused in the race. Breaking from the outside in a field of eight, Maragh got the son of Curlin to settle in behind favorite Battalion Runner early before pulling alongside on the turn. The jockey took a look under his arm at the quarter pole and had plenty of horse in the stretch to win by 3 1/2 lengths.
“I thought Rajiv gave him the perfect ride, he was close, but covered up and that’s where he wants to be,” Rolls said. “He will relax like that. I was worried. There were just eight runners and he was outside of everyone. I hoped somebody would get out there and in front of him because sometimes he can come out of the gate and jump straight on the bridle.”
Rolls said Irish War Cry recovered quickly at Aqueduct and has been showing similar signs since returning to Fair Hill. He walked for three days, jogged in the shedrow for a few more and will get back to galloping this week.
Around the barn, he’s relatively invisible. The Wood winner is about halfway down the shedrow, next to the hose. Most days, after training, he’s asleep. He gets some attention, because of what he’s done – and might yet do – but he doesn’t demand it or even need it.
“He’s so straightforward, he’s a happy horse,” Rolls said. “There’s no meanness in him. He’ll strike at you, try to bite you a little, but he’s not mean, he’s not nasty.”
NOTES: Irish War Cry galloped a mile Tuesday morning, his second day of galloping since winning the Wood Memorial . . . His lead pony is Under Control, a stakes winner of five races and $262,944 for Motion and Live Oak Plantation.