Leading into the Kentucky Derby, NBC and the rest of the media promoted the stories of the trainer with the heart transplant, the female rider aspiring to win the race, the 70-year-old trainer and his 50-year-old son-in-law/jockey competing in their first Derby. But the ultimate story line on Saturday couldn’t have been duller: a quiet, astute professional, lacking any tug-at-the-heartstrings story, trains a horse flawlessly to win America’s greatest race.
Graham Motion’s work with Animal Kingdom was exceptional because he defied so many precedents in the Derby. No horse with four or fewer career starts had won the Derby since 1918. No horse coming off a six-week layoff had won since 1956. Even though Animal Kingdom’s owner Barry Irwin chastised turf writers for “getting bogged down in . . . statistics,” these were not quirky statistics. They underscored the fact that horses need sufficient experience and preparation to be fit enough for the extraordinary demands of the Derby. Yet Motion’s European-style training regimen got Animal Kingdom ready to deliver a powerful effort after a six-week layoff in the fifth start of his career.
Moreover, no horse had ever won the Derby without racing on dirt. Animal Kingdom had raced exclusively on grass and synthetic surfaces — games that are very different from dirt. Motion tested Animal Kingdom’s capabilities on dirt with a single, crucial workout at Churchill Downs to determine whether he would enter the Derby. After it, Motion said he was convinced that he had a “very, very special horse.” He was proved right when Animal Kingdom accelerated in the stretch past Nehro — himself a formidable finisher — to score a 23 / 4-length victory.
Animal Kingdom’s success was due in part to the weakness of this Derby field. After the scratch of ailing Uncle Mo, once the outstanding member of this 3-year-old crop, there were no stars in the field. The top five finishers on Saturday had won a grand total of two stakes races among them — one of them being Animal Kingdom’s win in the Grade III Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park, not exactly a major stepping stone to the Derby. Animal Kingdom’s winning Beyer Speed Figure of 103 was the second lowest for the Derby in the 20 years that these ratings have been published in the Daily Racing Form.
Nevertheless, he fully deserved this victory, for the 137th edition was was a contrast to the many Derbies with oversized fields and so much traffic trouble that the best horse doesn’t necessarily win. (That was the case last year, when Super Saver got a perfect trip while Ice Box and Looking at Lucky ran into trouble that cost them a fair chance of winning.) Not a single horse in Saturday’s race encountered meaningful trouble. Nor did this Derby have an insanely fast pace that takes a toll on any horse who is too close to the lead. Shackleford, the pacesetter, ran the first half-mile in a restrained 48.63 seconds. This wasn’t a Derby in which the stretch-runners look deceptively good because the leaders are collapsing. Animal Kingdom’s strong finish was no illusion.
Though this wasn’t an exceptionally interesting Kentucky Derby, the emergence of Motion into the spotlight is a notable development. The 46-year-old is highly respected within the industry, but he never received the public recognition that is usually reserved for trainers who succeed in the Triple Crown series.
I wrote a column about him a few days before the Derby, not because I was prescient enough to think Animal Kingdom might win, but because Motion has a reputation as a completely honest trainer. He has started nearly 8,000 runners in his career without even a minor infraction involving medications. He was characteristically reticent about discussing his own record, but he offered a sensible and balanced view of the drug issues that have roiled American racing for decades. He believes that horsemen in this country have become much too reliant on medications and that U.S. racing rules allow too many drugs whose use shouldn’t be considered routine. But he recognizes the situations where Butazolidin is necessary in the treatment of horses and he does not oppose the regular use of Lasix.
Motion’s name is in the headlines at a moment when the drug issue is once again at the forefront of the industry. The Association of Racing Commissioners International has called for the abolition of race-day medications within five years. Legislation is being introduced in Congress that would impose national rules governing medication in racing and mandate harsh penalties for violators. As usual, horsemen’s groups oppose just about any effort to curtail the use of medications.
It is probably not in Motion’s nature to speak out publicly on industry issues, but he would be the perfect person to do so, because he opposes the profligate use of drugs while understanding their importance in the right circumstances. Even if he doesn’t speak out, he has demonstrated conclusively that it is possible, without relying on medications, to reach the pinnacle of American racing.