Two to go on this top 10 moments ride. The driveway is shoveled. One child is in Germany. Another is sledding. Another is at the neighbor’s house. The plumber went to the supply store. The dog is sleeping in the sunshine pouring into the house. Ready…write.
The last two are related. Well, not related, but they’re similar in theme. Both involve conversations – my job is built on conversations – with horse trainers who think before they talk, answer questions, explain as best they can and realize they’re never really sure about anything in this most unsure of businesses. And I love that. Anybody can tell you they knew they’re horse was going to win afterward, or tell you she’s doing great, climbing the barn walls and – as a trainer once told me – “as sharp as jailhouse coffee.”
But get a trainer talking, really talking, about training horses and it’s all “I don’t know” and “I think he’s doing real well. I think.”
There’s a reason even the best in the game don’t win all the time. Wise Dan lost a race in2013. Royal Delta lost four. Orb won the Derby, then lost the rest of his year. Divine Fortune finished second in five Grade 1 steeplechases before he won one. Growing Maryland legend Eighttofasttocatch seems unbeatable right now, while riding a three-race winning streak, but he began 2013 with a loss and threw in a clunker at Mountaineer Park in August.
Good horses make the game look easy. But it’s not. They’re horses, nobody truly knows what they’re going to do. That’s the beauty of it. And my list finishes with two trainers who talked to me about figuring it out.
2. Riding (and training) along with Graham Motion. It all started in the winter of 2011 at Fair Hill. There was snow, wind, cold and an idea. Toby’s Corner won a stakes at Aqueduct to become a blip on the Kentucky Derby radar screen. I sent Motion a text, then went by the barn. I wanted to do a daily journal about a Mid-Atlantic horse prepping for racing’s biggest stage through the weather and everything else. He agreed, reluctantly at first, and we chronicled the horse’s steps to a win in the Wood Memorial and the verge of Derby favoritism while meeting people and horses of all descriptions along the way. Then it all went wrong and Toby’s Corner was scratched days before the big race. Then Motion won the Derby anyway, with Animal Kingdom. The daily journal just shifted gears and followed a new horse – to the Preakness and Belmont. There were thousands of words written about the joy of winning, the pain of getting close, the empty feeling of a muddy loss.
Then Animal Kingdom got hurt, came back eight months later, won, got hurt again, came back again. He prepped for the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Mile on the turf course at Fair Hill – each workout was a breathtaking way to start a day – and finished second to Horse of the Year Wise Dan off a nearly nine-month layoff. Dubai’s rich World Cup was the goal for 2013 – along with a possible history-making try at Royal Ascot. Shipped to Florida, Animal Kingdom and Motion were no longer across the street from my office in Fair Hill, but we talked about training, about horses, about trying something extraordinary. He didn’t know how it was going to work, or even if it should be attempted. He only knew he thought his horse was up to it. He thought.
We talked the night before the race (well, it was night here anyway). I was watching Wichita State get to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament. Motion had just finished watching his horse train.
“I felt pressure going to the Breeders’ Cup last year just because we were doing something out of our routine and I hoped I had made the right decision,” Motion told me about Dubai. “I was very anxious about that and I feel the same way about this. It’s a long way to come to have something go wrong in the last few days. Having the horse seem as good as he is helps. Every indication is he’s going to handle it.”
He did, and won in a romp on the world’s stage for Motion and owners Team Valor International and Arowfield Stud.
About three months later, everything that went so right in the desert went wrong on the ancient turf of England as Animal Kingdom labored home 11th at Royal Ascot. Motion was disappointed, but also realistic.
“The most disappointing thing was what went into getting him there, and how well he did, and have it all go down the tubes in about 30 seconds,” Motion said afterward. “Everything went really well, except the race. We covered all our bases. The training, considering how tricky it was, went really well. He’d done everything he needed to do.”
They say racing is full of highs and lows. Motion rode them up and down for better than two years. Racing fans must have appreciated the glimpse into what he was thinking. I know I did.
More about Animal Kingdom in 2013 on thisishorseracing.com:
And an April Fool’s Day edition that was one of most popular articles ever posted on our site, even if it wasn’t true.
And one from the Toby’s Corner journal.