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Motion will start Animal Kingdom in Saturday’s race; his more accomplished runner, Toby’s Corner, was withdrawn from the field because of an injury.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.