Trainers who win the Kentucky Derby usually do so because they make the race their single-minded focus. With every promising young colt in their barns, they think, long-range, about the first Saturday in May.
That’s why Bob Baffert, Todd Pletcher and Nick Zito saddle contenders at Churchill Downs almost every year and will be prominent again on Saturday. And that’s why Graham Motion will probably never be a dominant Derby trainer.
Motion will start Animal Kingdom in Saturday’s race; his more accomplished runner, Toby’s Corner, was withdrawn from the field because of an injury. With neither 3-year-old did the trainer display fervor to get to the Derby. He didn’t even tell the colt’s owner when he nominated Toby’s Corner to the Triple Crown series. He raced Animal Kingdom only twice this year, once on grass and once on a synthetic track, hardly a regimen that seems designed to win on the Churchill Downs dirt. In Louisville this week Motion will be a low-key presence. “Graham seems a little uncomfortable in the limelight of the Derby,” said Barry Irwin, head of the partnership that owns Animal Kingdom.
To a casual racing fan, such an attitude might seem inexplicable. How can a trainer not be obsessed by America’s biggest race? It’s as if a coach in the National Football League was indifferent to the Super Bowl, saying it didn’t suit his coaching style.
But Motion is the product of a school of training — the old school — that believes you shouldn’t push horses aggressively to reach an objective because you want it. Instead, the horse himself is supposed to signal when he is ready for a particular objective. Of the Derby, Motion said, “I want to be taken there.”
The son of parents who operated a stud farm in England, Motion was 16 when he came with his family to the United States. Determined to have a career in the horse business, he went to work for trainer Jonathan Sheppard, best known as a developer of steeplechasers and long-distance turf runners, and from this future Hall of Famer he got his old-school education. Motion launched his career on the Maryland circuit in 1993, managing horses of all types — including plenty of low-level claimers — but eventually a gelding named Better Talk Now would define him as a trainer.
In an era when thoroughbreds’ careers are getting shorter and shorter, Motion managed the gelding through nine seasons of racing. Better Talk Now won his first minor stakes race when he was 4. He captured the nation’s most important grass race, the Breeders’ Cup Turf, at the age of 5. He almost won it a second time when he was 7. He continued to run well in Grade I stakes company until he was 10, retiring with a record of 14 wins in 51 starts and earnings of $4.3 million — a demonstration that contemporary horses, when handled patiently, can have long, productive careers. It is a record that also stands as a rebuke to the contention of the training establishment that thoroughbreds need a broad array of drugs to withstand the rigors of modern racing.
The 46-year-old Motion has become a hero to many racing fans because of his views and his record on medication. He prefers to rest horses with physical problems rather than to keep them going with drugs. He administers medications judiciously but admitted, “Everybody uses them as a crutch — me included.” He uses Lasix regularly (it’s an “integral part” of the modern game, he says) and Bute when necessary.
While doing so he has compiled an extraordinarily distinction. Most of the country’s top trainers — such as Pletcher and Steve Asmussen — have multiple drug violations on their records. Derby-winning trainer Rick Dutrow has a record of infractions as long as his arm. But in the nearly 8,000 starts that comprise his career, Motion has never been cited for a medication infraction. Not one. A journalist described him in print as the “anti-Dutrow,” the example that it’s possible to succeed in the sport without generating suspicions and cynicism about the use of illegal “juice.”
Characteristically, Motion is uncomfortable with such acclaim. “It makes me nervous to talk about it,” he said.
Motion has fashioned a professional style and an operation that suit him perfectly. He is based at a training center in Fair Hill, Md., a European-style facility that allows horses to spend plenty of time outside their stalls. The relaxed daily regimen helps the horses learn to relax when they are in competition — a key element in the grass races at which Motion specializes. Irwin, the managing partner of the TeamValor syndicate, liked the arrangement so much that he took all of his horses away from other trainers and put them in Motion’s care. “Graham is very patient, very relaxed, very thoughtful,” Irwin said. “And not only is he talented, he has a hell of a team,” Irwin said. “It’s an impressive organization.”
In the last 13 months, Motion has won 13 graded stakes on the grass and only one on the dirt: the Wood Memorial with Toby’s Corner. His reputation as a grass specialist has become self-perpetuating, because clients mainly ask him to train horses with turf-running ability or potential. “People don’t send us a horse who might be as precocious 2-year-old,” he said.
If Animal Kingdom distinguishes himself on Saturday, he could help Motion break this stereotype. The colt won his most recent start by rallying from last place in a field of 11 to win the Spiral Stakes on Turfway Park’s Polytrack. He has never raced on dirt, but when Motion tested him at Churchill Saturday morning, the colt worked six furlongs in 1:13.17 and dazzled most of the clockers. In a weak field, he could spring an upset.
But it is possible that Motion, with his patient style and unwillingness to push young horses too hard, will never receive the public recognition and acclaim that go to trainers who win Triple Crown races. This surely won’t bother him. It’s not so bad to be esteemed inside the sport for skill, good judgment and integrity.