Call it May Madness. And Fair Hill trainer Graham Motion is right in the thick of it.
On a sundrenched late afternoon at Aqueduct racetrack Toby’s Corner pulled off a head-spinning victory over the “anointed one,” Uncle Mo. The 1-10 favorite, Uncle Mo folded in mid-stretch as Toby’s Corner burst past both Uncle Mo and then Arthur’s Tale in the final 50 yards to snatch the $1 million Wood Memorial 1 1/8 mile race by a neck on April 9. With the victory Toby’s Corner earned a spot in the Kentucky Derby on May 7 at Churchill Downs. Uncle Mo was another length back in third.
Considering all the Triple Crown champion talk in the pre-race buildup, it was the most shocking defeat in the Wood since Secretariat got beat in 1973.
The race chart footnotes describe Toby’s Corner as overcoming significant traffic woes under Eddie Castro, "buried behind and amongst rivals on the far turn...forced to pause once again as the field approached the quarter-pole...altered course outward just past the three-sixteenths pole and got up in the final strides to win.”
“Eddie felt very strongly how talented this horse is since the first time he rode him,” said Motion, who has trained at Fair Hill since 2004. “We put blinkers on him when he worked out in the morning and I was worried it would make him keen, and actually he was more relaxed. I’ve never had a horse respond like that. Eddie had a great trip on the rail and then he re-broke at the eighth pole and took it home.”
The chestnut colt is a son of Bellamy Road, who won the 2005 Wood by a record 17 lengths. The Wood was the fourth win from six starts and his first graded stakes victory. A grandson of the great stallion Danzig, Toby’s Corner is a homebred of Julian and Dianne Cotter of Snooty Fox Farm, 14 miles north of Gainesville, Fla. The retired obstetrician and nurse also bred Bellamy Road. Toby’s Corner was coming off a third place finish in the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct on March 5. With the $600,000 payday he pushed his earnings to $722,240 for the Cotters.
“The owners never mentioned the Derby to me and I don't think Dianne even knew I'd nominated him early on,” said Motion, 46, a native of Cambridge, England. “I just didn't want to go to the Derby for the sake of it. I wanted this horse to take me there. It looks like the mile and a quarter won't be a problem. It's pretty neat. We're going, as long as he's doing fine.”
Uncle Mo’s improbable defeat has turned the May 7th Kentucky Derby upside down. Coupled with injuries to a couple of top contenders and a never ending string of stunning upsets in major Derby preps throughout April, we’re looking at a “wide, wide open” Derby picture.
As for Motion, the trainer has been on an impressive roll since Shared Account triumphed in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf race. As of mid-April, Motion ranked as the fourth leading trainer ($2.8 million in earnings), trailing only elite trainers named Pletcher, Baffert and Asmussen.
“It (the Derby) looks like a very wide open race now and I kind of think Toby’s Corner ranks right up there with the top ones,” related Motion.
The colt will train up to the 137th Kentucky Derby on the Tapeta surface at Fair Hill and ship in late to Churchill Downs. Three years ago Motion utilized the synthetic track at his home base to propel his three-year prospect Adriano into the 2008 Derby with a victory in the Lane’s End Stakes over a Polyturf surface.
A week before his upset victory in the Wood, Motion scored with Animal Kingdom in the $750,000 Vinery Racing Stakes (formerly the Lane’s End). In his stakes debut Animal Kingdom rallied from last of 11 horses and stormed home in the 1 1/8-mile Polyturf race winning by 2 ¾ lengths. He overcame a slow pace to lay down progressively better fractions in the victory. He is a chestnut son of Leroidesanimaux (Brazil) who was the champion turf male of 2005.
Animal Kingdom earned a 92 Beyer Speed Figure. More importantly, he also earned a $285,000 paycheck, elevating him up the list in graded stakes earnings to assure a Derby slot in a field where there is a 20-horse cutoff.
“It was a very impressive race,” Motion said. “You can’t afford to get too far out of it and that makes his race all that more impressive. We knew there would be an honest pace.”
“He’s got some real power,” said Barry Irwin, president of the racing partnership Team Valor International that owns the colt. “Animal Kingdom has got a bigger frame than he had last fall. He has really filled out physically. He was in a drive for the last six furlongs, and I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything quite like it.”
Still, Animal Kingdom has never raced on dirt in four career starts. Motion and Irwin’s plan is to have the colt train over Churchill Downs’ cuppy, dirt track a couple times before the Derby. If all goes well, he will be in the starting gate on May 7.
Last November a few days after Motion scored in the $1 million 2010 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf with Shared Account it was announced that Team Valor would send its entire roster of runners, including BC Juvenile Turf winner Pluck, to the trainer at his headquarters at the Fair Hill Training Center.
“At this stage of our development, we think we can have a more cohesive business and training environment with all our horses in one place.” Irwin noted.
Motion also has the highly regarded Crimson China. Another by Team Valor runner, he finished a fast-closing second in the Rushaway Stakes and was fifth in the Grade-1 Blue Grass Stake. He doesn’t have the graded earnings to qualify for the Derby.
The Factor has been with trainer Bob Baffert since the start of his career, and has been highly touted from the beginning. In his second start he broke the track record at six furlongs and has won three straight races in convincing style, utilizing his keen speed to run rivals off their feet.
But in the $1 million Arkansas Derby The Factor, (4-5 favorite) was outrun for the early lead and finished seventh after fading in the stretch. Jockey Martin Garcia attempted to get the horse to rate, harnessing his blazing speed going into the clubhouse turn. After the race Baffert said it appeared The Factor displaced his palate.
“I think Martin tried to take him out and teach him something today, but the horse wasn’t comfortable with that,” said Baffert. “I think he may have displaced his palate. Martin really had to snatch him in the first turn. A horse will displace if you grab them too hard. So he came back, and all the sudden you could hear him, the breathing, gurgling up.”
“If he goes with the two leaders (J P’s Gusto and Dance City), they’re going to go in 21. With those two horses it was just ridiculous.”
“I’m upset that he didn’t get to show something today. I wish he could have been on the outside. He’s just never been in a spot like that. We’re just going to go back and lick our wounds.” After the race Baffert made no commitments with regard to running in the Kentucky Derby. “We’re just going to see how he’s doing,” he said.
Elite Alex once again was never put into the race by jockey Calvin Borel and finished a disappointing ninth in the Arkansas Derby. He is owned by Chester County resident Chuck Zacney and trainer Tim Ritchey, the connections of his sire Afleet Alex that won the Preakness and Belmont in 2005.
Another colt with Pennsylvania connections is Pants on Fire. He is a son of the impressive stallion Jump Start, based at Ghost Ridge Farm near York, Pa. With his victory in the $500,000 Louisiana Derby, the colt is an example of a young horse starting to get good at the right time. He seems to have found his best running style, sitting just off the pace. Pants on Fire will be piloted by Rosie Napravnik, who has been based at Delaware Park for their summer meet. She is just the sixth woman to ride in the Kentucky Derby.
A pair of Danzig’s grandsons threw in clunkers at the Florida Derby. Based on his two previous spring starts Soldat was considered one of the top Derby contenders but flopped as the 3-to-2 favorite, finishing fifth, and beaten 10 ½ lengths. The race was lost in the first turn.
“Everything went wrong,” trainer McLaughlin acknowledged. “We had to get to the first turn quickly and then go from there. It just didn’t happen. It was a dry, hot day, and he took a lot of dirt.”
McLaughlin said he would lick his wounds, regroup and move on to Louisville. Undefeated and unchallenged in two previous starts this year, the speedy Flashpoint had a wide trip finishing fourth in the Florida Derby. He will not have the graded stakes earnings to quality for the 137th Derby. Pennsylvania-bred Anthony’s Cross is on the bubble to qualify after a disappointing fifth in the Santa Anita Derby.
On the ladies’ side, Joyful Victory cemented her status as one of the favorites in the $1 million Kentucky Oaks (May 6) with a seven-length romp over previously undefeated Arienza in the $285,000 Fantasy Stakes (G2) at Oaklawn Park on April 10.
Joyful Victory won her previous start by 8 3/4-lengths in the Honeybee Stakes (G3) at Oaklawn in March. The gray three-year old filly by Tapit is trained by Larry Jones for Rick Porter’s Fox Hill Farms.
“She ran great,” related jockey Mike Smith. “Larry wanted her to get something out of it, and she got something out of it. It was a move forward, with room to grow.”
Jones had another exceptional three-year filly plucked from his stable when Summer Soiree was bought by Team Valor International. She demolished the field by 10 ¾ lengths in the Bourbonette Oaks at Turfway on March 26 and owns a 3-0-3 racing record, earning $121,680.
In a season where the rich get richer, Summer Soiree is now residing in the Fair Hill barn of Graham Motion, who trains all of Team Valor's North American stock.