After riding seven races at Aqueduct, with a win and a third, Feb. 4 Rajiv Maragh got home in time to watch Gulfstream Park’s Holy Bull Stakes with his father. And saw a revelation.
“Graham Motion has the best 3-year-old in the country,” Maragh told his dad after watching Irish War Cry dismantle six others in the Grade 2 stakes. “He’s got the Kentucky Derby favorite.”
About a minute later, Maragh’s phone rang.
“Um, you need to call Graham,” Maragh’s agent Tony Micallef said. “Tell him you want to ride that horse.”
Maragh scoffed – and he’s great at scoffing.
“What are you talking about?” the jockey told his agent with a laugh of impossibility. “Joel Rosario is not going to take off that horse. I’m not going to call Graham Motion. There’s no way that horse is going to be open for the Derby.”
“Things happen,” he said. “You never know. I just have a feeling, so call him.”
Maragh told Micallef OK, agreed to make the call and hung up. Then turned to his father again.
“I’m not calling Graham Motion. That’s stupid. There’s no way Rosario is taking off that horse.”
Maragh never did talk to Motion about riding Irish War Cry, but – three months later – here they are partnered up for the Kentucky Derby. Irish War Cry finished a dull seventh in his next start, the Fountain of Youth, at Gulfstream and when Motion opted to skip the Florida Derby in favor of Aqueduct’s Wood Memorial April 8 Rosario wound up with a conflict. He went to Keeneland to ride Practical Joke in the Blue Grass, and Motion called Micallef about the Wood.
Micallef, who had wisely not committed to any Wood Memorial runners despite a couple of opportunities, called Maragh.
“I just got a call about Graham’s horse in the Wood,” the agent said. “If he works good, you can ride him.”
Maragh laughed and laughed some more.
“Whaaat?” he said. “All right.”
Maragh and Irish War Cry won the Wood together and the horse is the fourth choice on the morning line for Saturday’s Derby. Isabelle de Tomaso’s New Jersey-bred will break from post 17 and could give Motion his second Derby and Maragh his first.
The Derby mount heralds a revival of Maragh’s career from a July 2015 injury that left him with broken ribs, broken vertebrae and a collapsed lung. He spent three days in the hospital, nine months in a body brace recovering at home in New York.
He missed 16 months of race riding, returning in November at Aqueduct. That injury came shortly after Maragh worked his way back from a broken arm that cost him a chance to ride Main Sequence in the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Turf. After riding more than 971 races a year (and winning at least 126) for nine years, he rode just 733 in 2014 with the late-season arm injury. The mounts dipped to 421 in 2015 and just 139 last year.
He’s already won 54 (his highest figure since 2014) from 339 mounts this year, mainly by staying in New York all winter, and is 15th on the national earnings table. The 31-year-old would normally ride in Florida, but opted to stay at Aqueduct to rebuild his business. The tradeoff was giving up the chance to ride a top 3-year-old or a top turf horse.
“I thought I could win races on a larger scale and build back the winning reputation to get opportunities to win races down the road,” he said. “It wasn’t like I was expecting a Derby horse. I wouldn’t have been disappointed if I didn’t get a Derby ride.”
Then came Irish War Cry. He will be Maragh’s fifth Derby mount after Mission Impazible (ninth in 2010), Mucho Macho Man (third in 2011), Alpha (12th in 2012) and Wicked Strong (fourth in 2014).
“I was ecstatic to ride him, I was ecstatic to ride him,” Maragh said of Irish War Cry. “It fell right in my lap. Everything just happened for me. You can’t put it into words. There’s no word I can use to describe it. It was very surreal for me, especially the path that got me to the Derby.”
As for the Derby, Maragh is confident in his horse. The jockey, who worked Irish War Cry at Fair Hill April 30 in his final Derby prep, likes the way his horse does things. He sees a maturing 3-year-old, who seems to handle obstacles well and possesses a versatile running style that shouldn’t be compromised by one scenario or the other. No horse is completely prepared for the Derby with its 20 horses, 1 1/4-mile distance, massive crowd and the accompanying noise, long walkover and pre-race wait and all the rest. Irish War Cry, so far, has shown no signs of being bothered by much at all.
“I would absolutely be shocked if he didn’t handle it perfectly,” said Maragh. “I would be stunned. He doesn’t give me any signals that he would be like that. He does everything the right way.”
In the work, Maragh asked Motion if Irish War Cry could have a target – a horse to sit behind and challenge when asked. Stalking Providence Road in a 6-furlong move on Fair Hill’s dirt track, Irish War Cry went after the older horse when Maragh asked and “won” the breeze without really extending himself.
“That’s one situation I hadn’t been in with him,” said Maragh. “For me, that made me feel comfortable if that was a position I was put in. I just wanted to see how he would react and he was exactly what I was hoping for. It just opens up so many options for me riding him. That makes my job a lot easier.”