It began in early May with a dream trip winning the Kentucky Derby. Animal Kingdom thundered down the stretch bold, forceful, confident, a thoroughbred in a hurry to join an elite roster of victors of the world’s most famous race.
Two weeks later came the Preakness where a poor break from the gate cost him the race. Shuffled back to 13th in the 14 horse field, Animal Kingdom was taking - and resenting - dirt kicked back into his face. In the shorter race (1 3/16-mile race) the strapping chestnut colt came charging late again but Pimlico’s short stretch did him in, a half length short.
Next up: the Belmont. It looked like another one of those golden moments for Animal Kingdom who was bred for stamina. But the rains came the night before with intermittent showers all day Saturday, turning the “Big Sandy” into the “Big Gooey Mess.” Speed horses were winning all day on a sloppy, sealed track where hardly any horses made up any ground.
A few strides into the Belmont disaster struck.
Animal Kingdom, the 5-2 favorite, was bumped by Mucho Macho Man, the horse on his immediate outside, causing Motion’s colt to stumble badly. It got worse. He then clipped heels with Monzon and jockey Johnny Velazquez was nearly tossed. Barely hanging on, it took Velazquez until the first turn to get his left foot back in the stirrup. By then the strapping chestnut, splattered with a sea of mud, trailed the field by more than a dozen lengths.
Watching the race from the grandstand with his wife Anita and their two children, Fair Hill trainer Graham Motion couldn't believe the nightmare unfolding before his eyes.
"I was sick, the horse almost fell down." Motion said. "You knew you had no shot after that. The race was over for him. It's disappointing not to give the horse a chance to run his race. That's a tough way to lose. There's a lot of ways to lose in this game, but that’s a tough way to lose."
"It was unbelievable," Velazquez said. "They came over on me and clipped heels and I almost came off. I had a horrible trip. No way was he going to make up that much ground.”
Still, Animal Kingdom launched a wide, powerful move on the sweeping far turn passing five horses to draw into contention, but the speed horses were not dropping back on the sloppy track. He flattened out in mid-stretch and finished sixth.
“I was asking him to run way too much to be where I was from the half-mile pole to the quarter pole,” Velazquez related. “He's still a great horse."
Barry Irwin, CEO and managing partner of the partnership that owns the colt, didn’t mince words after the race saying Isn’t He Perfect came over and intimidated Mucho Macho Man causing a chain reaction. Isn’t He Perfect finished last in the Belmont after he ran ninth in the Preakness.
“We never had a chance,” Irwin said. “Isn't He Perfect had no business being in this race and he screwed it up for a lot of horses today. Classics are no place for amateurs.”
The day after the race Velazquez said he believed Rajiv Maragh was careless for allowing Isn't He Perfect to come over a few paths and interfering with other horses.
“I thought so,” said Velazquez. “How the heck did that horse end up on top of me four or five jumps after the break? Normally, that doesn’t happen unless a horse makes a left or right, whatever it might be.”
Ruler on Ice, a 25-1 long-shot, splashed his way to a half-length victory. It was a fitting conclusion to the 2011 Triple Crown campaign that saw injuries and ailments knock out four top contenders by early April and where the favorite did not win in any of the last ten Derby preps. Animal Kingdom was the only colt to win two consecutive big stakes races. Right now, he is the leader of the 3-year old class.
Howard Graham Motion is no stranger to big-race success. He saddled a pair of Breeders' Cup winners in Better Talk Now who took the Turf in 2004, and Shared Account in last year's Filly & Mare Turf. Matter of fact, the Fair Hill trainer has never finished off the board in Breeders’ Cup races. His former stable star Film Maker competed in three editions-- finishing runner-up in 2004, third the following year, and second again behind champion Ouija Board the last time the Breeders' Cup was run at Churchill Downs in 2006.
Motion’s affinity for turf horses came to him naturally. He grew up at Herringswell Stud, a boarding farm in the horse mecca of Newmarket, England that was operated by his parents. He first came to America as a 16-year-old when his father Michael, an international bloodstock agent, became the American representative for Tattersalls. Jo, his mother, rode as an amateur jockey and tended to Nickel Coin, a bay mare who staged a 40-1 upset win in the 108th Grand National at Aintree in 1951. She was among the first women to take out training licenses in the United States. These days, Jo and her son Andrew are proprietors of the Middleburg Tack Exchange in Virginia.
At age 21 Motion accepted an invitation to work at Ashwell Stable in the rolling hills outside West Grove, Pa., the training farm of Jonathan Sheppard.
“My parents figured that one cold winter would put me off for life, but six years later I was still there,” laughed Motion. “I was pretty green when I got there. Jonathan let all of us get on with it, making decisions. You make your mistakes, but you do learn.”
In the fall of 1985 Motion got on with it, accompanying the great steeplechaser Flatterer when he ran in the Colonial Cup. The bay gelding ran away to win by eight lengths. With Motion as “traveling head lad,” Flatterer earned Eclipse Awards as America’s top steeplechase horse an unprecedented four consecutive years. He placed second in prominent races in England and France and is considered one of the greatest in steeplechase history.
Motion lived with the Sheppard family in a guest room. He picked up quite an education.
“So many trainers get their horses fit through racing, whereas Jonathan (Sheppard) gets them fit at the farm for a race,” Motion related. “He’s very much a horseman’s trainer, and there wasn’t a moment in the day when he wasn’t doing something that didn’t involve the stable. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that here my team and I are with a barn full of graded stakes, grass fillies, which he always shined with.”
“I hope I had an influence, at least by example. I was always approachable,” said Sheppard, another unassuming English native. “He was a responsible young man. He would see me into the evening going through my workbooks and talking with owners, planning upcoming workouts. Hopefully, some of that rubbed off.”
In 1990 Motion went to France to work with trainer Jonathan Pease and met his future wife Anita, a horsewoman also from England. Today, Anita runs Herringswell Stable’s business operation.
The trainer is highly thought of by his staff, a very knowledgeable team of horsemen and women.
“Graham is a very level-headed guy, he doesn’t let anything get to him” remarked longtime assistant trainer David Rock who travels with Animal Kingdom. “He does the right thing by the horse. He’ll never run a horse just for the sake of running.”
After a decade of training at Maryland and Delaware tracks, Motion relocated to Fair Hill in 2001 and purchased a barn there three years later. Herringswell Stable is a handsome structure with expansive polished wood stalls surrounded by the site’s 350 acres of serenity. Motion sets an unhurried pace-- much like a European yard—for his employees and horses. It’s a six minute ride down the road to his home where he returns each afternoon to greet his children Jane, 14 and Marcus, 7 after school.
Back at the barn a pair of playful Labradors, Bentley and Sasha, greet visitors. In an adjacent paddock a couple of old war horses frolic, Gala Spinaway, 23, and Better Talk Now, 12. The former was the trainer’s first stakes winner while Better Talk Now’s five Breeder’s Cup starts tied a record and his career earnings on the turf trail only the great John Henry among North American-based horses.
“Those are my foundation horses, lovely horses that will always have a home with us,” Motion noted. “As for Fair Hill, it’s a wonderful environment to train horses. I appreciate the quality of life and get the opportunity to raise a family in the country. Life doesn’t get any better.”
The morning after saddling the 137th Kentucky Derby winner Motion was still trying to come to grips with the rush of emotions linked to winning the world’s most famous horserace.
“It was surreal,” said Motion. “To win the Derby is not something I ever expected to do. I’m always going to be considered a Kentucky Derby winning trainer and that speaks volumes.”
But unlike American-born trainers, winning the Derby was never anything that the native Englishman aspired to: “I mean no disrespect, but it wasn’t ingrained in me to win this race.”
Animal Kingdom, a 21-1 shot, roared down the stretch under John Velazquez to win by 2 ¾ lengths in the world’s most famous race in front of a record crowd of more than 164,000 at Churchill Downs. The son of Brazilian-bred miler Leroidesanimaux with his trademark forehead star carried the silks of Team Valor.
Last fall Motion was named the trainer for CEO Barry Irwin’s Team Valor stable, one of the best-known partnerships in the world of horseracing. Included in their string of horses was a promising but green Animal Kingdom. Earlier this year Irwin purchased a 40-stall barn at Fair Hill. Taking a page from European principles of horsemanship, horses at the Fair Hill training center hack through wooded trails and back fields, run in pastures and are turned out in paddocks.
“Obviously he’s not just a turf trainer, he can train all different types of horses,” said Motion’s outspoken boss. “Graham and his team really care for them in a very relaxed environment he’s created. He reasons things out, takes everything in stride and has a wonderful temperament. He is refreshing.”
A powerfully built chestnut, Animal Kingdom rolled to the $2 million victory with a thundering charge down the stretch.
It was a victory tinged with irony as both trainer and jockey had suffered the disappointment of losing the horses they had expected to be their number one contenders in the week before the race. Velazquez was booked to ride Uncle Mo until the two-year-old champion was finally ruled out on Friday morning. Motion had one of the Derby’s leading contenders in Toby's Corner, who beat Uncle Mo in the Wood Memorial. He too was ruled out of contention the Tuesday before the race with a hind-leg injury.
Motion was close to tears when he broke the news to Toby’s Corner owners Dianne and Julian Cotter.
"It's been a pretty emotional week, but this is just extraordinary," Motion related. "I felt really good about both my horses - as good as I've felt in a long time about anything, so it was an odd feeling to come here with a live horse but still have a sense of disappointment."
The soft-spoken and humble trainer has more than 1,000 winners to his name in North America. Motion is what American racing badly needs. He does the right thing for his horses. Living in the tranquil setting of Fair Hill, the animals are relaxed and happy.
Motion’s Derby victory also demonstrates conclusively that it is possible to scale racing’s highest peak without relying on medications. Last year, Motion was one of two trainers on the top 20 earnings list without a medication violation. In fact, he’s never been cited for a medical infraction in nearly 8,000 starts of a training career that dates back to the early 1990s.
"Animal Kingdom was just so powerful today," Motion marveled after the Derby. "He's just a magnificent animal but obviously I wasn't sure that he would handle the switch over to dirt. He's an amazing horse." Preakness Runner-up
In the Derby, the dirt from other horses was hitting Animal Kingdom in the chest because he was closer to the ones he was trailing. Not so in the Preakness. Velazquez peeled off four of the five pair of goggles he wore because of flying dirt.
“When the dirt hit him in the face, it put him farther back than I wanted to be,” said jockey. “I wanted to be closer. We had too much ground to make up.”
“He had dirt caked between his blinkers,” Motion added. “I’ve never seen that much dirt. It was extraordinary.”
Soaked with sweat and bucking like a rodeo bronco, Shackleford was shoved into the No. 5 gate in the Preakness. Typically, that’s not a great sign. But once the gates opened he was all business. After a swift first quarter in 22.69, Shackleford and Flashpoint slowed down the pace considerably and the two battled into the top of the stretch when Shackleford grabbed the lead.
Animal Kingdom started to pick up the pace entering the final turn, but unlike the Derby, Velazquez had to pick his way around traffic to get to a clear path on the outside. He rallied past several horses in the deep stretch but came up a half length short.
“I can’t believe what Johnny weaved through the last three-eighths of a mile,” Motion noted. “He was coming and coming. But it wasn’t meant to be. I think the horse ran huge. It was just a matter of some tough racing luck.” Looking Ahead
Motion said that Animal Kingdom seemed to come out of the Belmont sound, but that the horse was “pretty stiff.” By Sunday afternoon he was home picking grass in a paddock outside Motion’s Fair Hill barn. Even with the Belmont experience, Motion called the previous five weeks "remarkable."
"It's been an extraordinary trip," he said. "It's been so cool to do it with such a neat horse. I think you're going to hear great things from this horse down the road."
Heading into the Belmont both Motion and Irwin said they were pointing to major turf races this summer. But after nearly being brought down and finishing a sixth in the Belmont Irwin stated Animal Kingdom will be pointed for races like the Grade 1, $1 million Haskell Invitational on July 31 at Monmouth Park, and the Grade 1, $1 million Travers Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 27, which also are under consideration for Ruler On Ice and Shackleford.
“We want to make this horse the champion,” Irwin said. “I really thought he was going to win the Belmont. Now I think we’re going to have to strongly consider the Haskell and the Travers because of how they figure to impact the Eclipse Award balloting.”