Ring Weekend tries to punch Derby ticket

- -

In brogues and accents, they’re laughing again in trainer Graham Motion’s shedrow at Fair Hill Training Center. The barn might have another Derby horse, and Johnny, Robbie, Adrian and the rest make sure visitors know it.

“Hey, where’ve you been?”

“Oh, we must have another Derby horse if you’re coming around.”

“We have horses here all year, you know?”

And on and on and on.

Motion won the 2011 Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom, taking the crew on quite a ride. They’re trying to get back to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May with Ring Weekend, a chestnut gelding who went from maiden to Grade 2 stakes winner this winter in Florida. The Derby train paused briefly on the tracks with a second (at 2-5) in the Calder Derby April 5, but Motion is still considering a start in the classic May 3.

Originally slated to stay in Florida (while the string went north) and then ship to Kentucky, Ring Weekend instead went home to Fair Hill. He’s been regrouping, training, adjusting to temperature swings, soaking up some time in a paddock, visiting the therapy center and otherwise getting back to work. Motion is happy to have the horse home.

“He really has done well here, he’s been in good form, he’s moving well, he looks good,” the trainer said. “I can turn him out here which is good. I’m just much more comfortable having him here. I can see him every day. It’s also my environment – where I’m more comfortable, let alone the horse.”

Last Thursday, Ring Weekend galloped 1 1/2 miles on the dirt – bouncing along on a loose rein for steeplechase jockey/exercise rider Robbie Walsh. The son of Tapit  bounded and bucked for a few strides to start the gallop on the backside, then got right to work. Ring Weekend is scheduled to work this Friday, which will help determine the Derby try.

Motion sounds like he’s leaning toward running, based on his horse and the seemingly wide-open Derby picture. The trainer is impressed with Wicked Strong and California Chrome, but – like many – does not see a standout 3-year-old of 2014.

Ring Weekend fits off the progress he showed in Florida this winter for St. Elias Stable and West Point Thoroughbreds. Winless in three starts last year, the Kentucky-bred finished second on the turf in his 2014 debut in January. Motion went back to the dirt, and Ring Weekend won a 1 1/16-mile maiden in February despite being caught wide twice. Off that effort, the Keeneland September graduate was sent off at 14-1 in the Tampa Bay Derby. He ran like a 1-9 shot, leading at every call and winning by 3 lengths over Vinceramos in the $350,000 stakes March 8.

That win nearly guaranteed a spot in the Derby points rankings, and Motion opted for the Calder Derby as the final step toward Churchill Downs. Ring Weekend worked over the track beforehand and started as a heavy favorite, but couldn’t reel in Our Caravan late and finished a well-beaten second. The performance, off the Tampa race, created some doubt.

Jockey Alan Garcia told Motion the horse didn’t handle the track. Motion wonders if he should have waited a week and run in the Blue Grass at Keeneland. Handicappers will say the horse bounced in his first start after a big effort. Tactically, maybe he needed to run more freely early.

“Calder seemed like a great idea and hindsight is always easy,” Motion said. “I kind of wish I had given him an extra week to get over the Tampa race and gone to the Blue Grass perhaps. The extra week might have benefited him and the track was kind of funny that afternoon at Calder. He worked so well on it in the morning that I thought he would be fine.”

Ring Weekend was high on Motion’s 2-year-old list last year, as evidenced by a Saratoga debut (fifth on the turf). Next out, he was third at Churchill Downs on the dirt and then third again on Keeneland’s Polytrack. The races weren’t bad, but neither were they up to the expectations or the ability the horse flashed in the morning. After the Keeneland race, Ring Weekend was gelded and given a short break. He emerged in Florida this winter, off a three-month layoff. He’s been first or second in all four starts since.

“Castrating him and giving him the time really turned him around,” said Motion. “He came back and ran super on the grass at Gulfstream. I didn’t have him pegged as a grass horse but it was an easier spot to bring him back in. Then after he ran well on the grass, we felt like we had to see how he would do on the dirt. Being a 3-year-old we needed to find out. He drew a terrible post (10) at Gulfstream that day and won quite impressively.”

Ring Weekend nearly shipped north early for a start in Laurel’s Private Terms Stakes, but stayed south and went to Tampa instead.

“That was me trying to be conservative again,” Motion said. “At the last minute we talked about it again and thought the Tampa race was not going to be a crazy spot and it was three or four hours down the road instead of 16 or 17 hours. The weather here was very shaky so I was quite happy to do a plan B and stay in Florida. Sure enough it worked out well.”

So now it’s on to plan C and a few weeks at Fair Hill before the Kentucky Derby. Ring Weekend gets options, Motion gets peace of mind.

“I see no real reason to be at Churchill, it’s a lot more comfortable to have him here,” he said. “I worked him at Calder and it didn’t seem to help him a whole lot, and he’s run at Churchill before so we’ll stay here, work Friday and then make a decision.”