Fate or circumstance? That’s how trainer Graham Motion put it when explaining the development of Irish War Cry from unraced maiden to Kentucky Derby hopeful in less than four months.
On Nov. 11 at Laurel Park, the New Jersey-bred colt was No. 15 in a big field of maiden 2-year-olds trying to run in a 6-furlong race. The field is limited to 12 so it took three scratches – Smash And Dash and Behavioral Bias from the body of the race and Hammerin Aamer ahead of Irish War Cry on the also-eligible list – to get in. Motion’s horse got all three and joined the field. He won by 4 1/2 lengths at 8-1 to launch a career which takes another step forward in Saturday’s Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park. The Grade 2 stakes offers 50 Derby points to the winner and would further elevate Irish War Cry’s status as a major player in the country’s most-famous Thoroughbred race.
Motion resists the temptation to think too far ahead with Isabelle de Tomaso’s homebred.
“Had we not started that day at Laurel, would we be here today?” the trainer asked.
He’s got a point. If Irish War Cry didn’t draw into the November race, he might not have started for another week. It might have rained for that race, Motion might have scratched, the Curlin colt might have missed a few weeks for some reason or another. Then he wouldn’t have run in, and won, Laurel’s Marylander Stakes Dec. 31 in his second start and wouldn’t have shipped to Florida to train for a 3-year-old campaign. He wouldn’t have been accomplished enough to try the Holy Bull, which he won to remain undefeated in three starts.
Ah, the life of a horse trainer. If the competition doesn’t get you, the variables will.
Favored at 5-2, Irish War Cry takes on 10 others (pending a scratch or two) in the Fountain of Youth, the 13th race on a crowded Gulfstream card. He must contend with Practical Joke, a Saratoga debut winner and dual Grade 1 winner as a 2-year-old last year, and Holy Bull runner-up Gunnevera among others. Motion figures it’s the next step.
“When he won the first time, numbers-wise it stood out to everybody,” said Motion. “He was super-impressive that day, the way he did it. Then you think ‘oh well, it was a Maryland maiden race’ but some nice horses are coming out of Maryland and when you win like that it matters.”
Irish War Cry joined the Motion barn at Fair Hill Training Center a little later than some and didn’t set about wowing his trainer, though the folks in the 2-year-old barn will tell you they were enthused.
“I don’t think he did anything to really catch my eye early on, though (assistant Cat McGee) tells me that they were excited about him running the first time,” said Motion. “When we ran him, he really switched on. He’s a smart horse I think.”
No longer an unknown, Irish War Cry was heavily favored in his second start – the 7-furlong Marylander Stakes at Laurel Dec. 31. Facing just four rivals, he wound up in a stretch battle with O Dionysus and scored by a nose. O Dionysus came into that race with two wins in five starts, and went on to finish second in the Frank Whiteley and win the Miracle Wood at Laurel.
“I pretty much circled that race after he won the maiden so nicely. I loved the progression to seven-eighths and it just fit what we were thinking of doing,” said Motion. “I thought he was really game, running against an experienced horse and now that horse has proven to be a legit horse.”
Irish War Cry spent about a week at Fair Hill before heading to Florida – in a snowstorm. At Palm Meadows, he worked twice in January and then added the Holy Bull to his list of achievements. Ridden by Joel Rosario, racing on Lasix and going two turns for the first time, the chestnut colt galloped to the front and stayed there through fractions of :24.14 and :47.92 before winning by 3 3/4 lengths over Gunnevera after 1 1/16 miles in 1:42.52.
The son of Curlin and the Polish Numbers mare Irish Sovereign races the same distance Saturday, but might not be in front – which would be fine with Motion.
“Feargal (Lynch) kind of blamed himself that day in the Marylander,” Motion said. “He smooched him away from there and he got really on the bit. He’s never acted like that in the morning. He’s very kind to gallop.”
Practical Joke looks like the main threat to Irish War Cry for trainer Chad Brown. Owned by Klaravich Stable and Bill Lawrence, the son of Into Mischief won his career debut by 5 lengths last summer at Saratoga, then won the Hopeful to close that meet and added the Champagne at Belmont Park in October. Sent to the Breeders’ Cup, he finished third behind Classic Empire and Not This Time in the Juvenile. A three-time winner before Irish War Cry even started, Practical Joke has prepped at Palm Meadows including a bullet 5-furlong move Feb. 19. Jose Ortiz rides the bay colt, a $240,000 Keeneland September purchase.
Gunnevera was also busy last year, winning his third start (at Gulfstream in July) and adding the Saratoga Special in August. He won the Grade 3 Delta Downs Jackpot Nov. 19 and then finished second without threatening Irish War Cry in the Holy Bull. Stakess winner Three Rules (5-for-6 at Gulfstream) and Made You Look are also part of the field. The latter makes his dirt debut for trainer Todd Pletcher. On turf, the More Than Ready colt has won three of six including scores in the With Anticipation at Saratoga and Dania Beach at Gulfstream.