Toby’s Corner: The people cope with bad news

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Motion staffers keep working, despite missing Derby

ST is following Fair Hill-based 3-year-old Toby’s Corner to the Kentucky Derby, chronicling his life and his training, bringing readers details about the horse and serving up a small taste of what it’s like for his connections to work with a Kentucky Derby contender.

 

Thursday, May 5

Toby’s Corner galloped like a train Saturday, worked to precision Sunday. Monday, he couldn’t trot without limping. Off in his left hind. Veterinarians are thus far stumped for a conclusive reason.

Welcome to Thoroughbred racing.

Trainer Graham Motion called the lameness a 2 on a scale of 1-5, but this close to a race – any race, let alone the Kentucky Derby – it doesn’t matter. Toby’s Corner might be sound tomorrow, but it’s too late to make the Run for the Roses. The injury might be a chip, a fracture, a strain, a tear, a bruise, an infection. Doesn’t matter, it’s there somewhere and the horse is not running in the country’s most famous race.

Nowhere is that more evident than at the barn, where the team works and waits and wonders. Wednesday, a day after a polished tractor trailer with Aruna, Deal Making, Icabad Crane and Smart Bid left for Churchill Downs – without Toby’s Corner – these people did their jobs and wondered.

“It’s hard because it’s so important to get ready for a race like the Derby,” said Becky Kelly, a barn foreman for Motion. “When you have any kind of a Derby horse, it’s exciting, but for him to get in, the way he ran that last race, the Wood, it makes you think. He really came around. We felt like we really had a chance.”

They did, at least as much as anyone else in a 20-horse race that can hinge as much on luck as ability. Owned by his breeders Dianne and Julien Cotter, Toby’s Corner carries four wins and two thirds in six career starts. He’s won three times this year, including the Grade I Wood Memorial April 9. The son of Bellamy Road found a clear path at the quarter pole and ran down heavy favorite Uncle Mo to earn a trip to Kentucky.

Toby’s Corner came home to Fair Hill and started training for the Derby. He rested first, jogged in the field, jogged in the shedrow (when the waterlogged turf in the field tried to suck off his shoes) and worked his way back to Fair Hill’s tracks. He went to the 1-mile dirt track for a few days, then moved to the 7-furlong Tapeta.

Motion and assistant Adrian Rolls created a schedule and the horse followed. He galloped 1 1/4 miles – strong, controlled, looking for more without demanding it. A week later, he stepped up to 1 1/2 miles – changing leads with gusto and trying to play tough guy with exercise rider James Slater. He never missed a day. No cough, no sprung shoe, no fever, no touch of colic, no tying up, no weather foul enough to change plans.

“He came out of the race better,” said Kelly of the Wood. “A couple days after, his legs were tighter, everything was better about that horse. He was eating better after the race, not that he was eating bad before it. He looked better. Every day was another step.”

The gallops lengthened to 2 miles last week and Toby’s Corner again responded, first by trying to tell Slater to pull up at the normal stopping point (you could almost hear the horse laugh), then by chewing up track like a road grader. Saturday’s 2-mile gallop was Thoroughbred poetry. He hammered it, legs extending to stride after perfect stride. Like Kelly said, it made you think.

Toby’s Corner worked a day later, gliding through a 6-furlong move that Motion – back in town after seeing to Animal Kingdom and Summer Soiree in Kentucky – called perfect. The breeze wasn’t fast, but didn’t need to be.  

“He felt to me exactly like the horse the week before the Wood,” said Slater. “He does what he does. He could knock out a faster work, it’s always in him. His works are more to give him a bit of a blow.”

Sunday’s breeze was to be followed by a walk and/or jog Monday and Tuesday, then a van ride to Kentucky. The horse was ready, the work complete.

“Sunday, a couple of hours after he breezed I was bringing him back from the saltwater therapy he does,” said Kelly. “Graham was there and said to give him a jog. It was a good, hard, even surface. You can hear what they sound like and I was listening. I was jogging him and I was like ‘Wow, this is great.’ ”

The next morning, everything stopped. Toby’s Corner walked the shedrow.  Much like Motion did the day before, Rolls asked for the horse to be “jogged up” to see how he was moving. The horse jogged. The man stared and cringed.

“He walked fine,” Rolls said. “Typically I jog them up after they breeze and I just noticed he was a hair off in his left hind. I didn’t want to say anything to anybody so I let him walk a little further, jogged him up again. He seemed like he was a little worse.”

Rolls waited for Motion.

“I think you need to see this,” he told his boss. “We took him out back and jogged him on the harder ground. You could definitely see it then . . . Terrible feeling.”

“Adrian has a really good eye, a really trained eye,” Kelly said. “He’s the one who caught it. Something wasn’t quite right. He saw him jog off, I couldn’t quite see it, I needed to see more, but I saw Adrian’s face and my stomach went.”

Like Kelly, Slater saw it all unfolding and mentally backpedaled.

“Your first reaction is to hope it’s nothing serious, that maybe he just took one funny step,” he said. “The longer it went on, there was a gradual dawning that the trail was coming to an end, it’s like having the rug pulled out from under you.”

Veterinary examinations at Fair Hill and at nearby New Bolton Center revealed little and are still not providing much of a diagnosis. Lame in his left hind.

“Clinically, he looked fine,” said Rolls. “Nothing showed up. I think we did the right thing getting the bone scan (during an overnight stay at New Bolton) because of where he was going, who he is.”

Meaning if Toby’s Corner was just a horse, one looking at just a race, he probably would have simply stayed at Fair Hill, walked for a few days, been given a chance to recover.

“Hopefully he’s just missing a race, nothing more,” said Rolls. “At least we caught it here. If he was all the way in Kentucky and had a problem it would have been worse or if he had a problem in the race it would have been worse. You just don’t know.”

Nobody does. Trainers, riders, people who work in barns never do. Racing is a mad, mad, mad game. Humans try to figure it out, make it their life’s work. And everything hinges on an animal that nature made as fast as the wind and as fragile as an old window pane. The list of things that can go wrong with a Thoroughbred would make Santa Claus cringe.

The trick is to survive the unknown, ride out the waves. Somehow.

“So many people have been saying to me ‘You getting excited?’ ” Rolls said. “No, no. How come? Because we’re not there yet. I’ve been doing it long enough, you cannot get upbeat, or too upbeat, about them too much. Sod’s Law, it’s happened before, it’ll happen again I’m sure.”

Regardless, the barn reeled at the news of no Derby. Motion, Rolls, Kelly, Slater, van driver Keith Cooper, everyone. The big horse wasn’t making the big race. Plan scrubbed. Opportunity gone. It hurt. Motion spoke to the staff, then had foreman Victor Gonzalez explain the situation in Spanish. Wednesday, Toby’s Corner’s groom Emiliano Guzman said good morning and just shook his head – the universal language of "Damn."

“The groom, the hotwalker, everybody’s feeling bad but they’re feeling bad for everybody else too,” Kelly said. “I feel bad for Adrian, he feels bad for me, we all feel bad. This  horse belonged to everybody in the barn. He was here all winter with us. We’re all here together, we’re all in it for the benefit of the horse.”

“Everyone has done a lot of hard work on him, the groom, the hotwalker, Becky, Adrian,” said Slater. “Every day they ask me how the horse feels. He’s the big horse for them too.”

Crazily, there are other horses at Fair Hill and in Kentucky. Some 2-year-old just arrived. The Motion team has work to do. This weekend, the stable’s Florida/Kentucky division sends Summer Soiree out for Friday’s Kentucky Oaks and Animal Kingdom for Saturday’s Derby.

“You get emotional about this stuff, it’s hard not to; we got this far,” Rolls said. “But there are still 50 other horses you’ve got to worry about. That occupies your mind, you’ve got to get on with things. We’ve got some pretty exciting horses to run. We’re lucky, right?”

 

*PHOTO: Toby’s Corner rolls down the backside at Fair Hill (Jack Clancy).

 

Click for previous Toby’s Corner Journal Entries.

 

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