In the fall of 2010 Barry Irwin’s Team Valor International sent horses to Graham Motion at the Fair Hill Training Center and he purchased a barn there six months later.
Call them racing’s odd couple. A proper English gentleman, Motion had been tutored by the legendary Jonathan Sheppard. Irwin has a keen eye in selecting top-flight runners. He also has a bombastic personality that enjoys lambasting jockeys after questionable rides and tangling with racing’s hierarchy over race-day medication policies. The forever question: could the two co-exist?
Less than a week after winning the $10 million Dubai World Cup with Animal Kingdom in Sheik Mohammad’s desert kingdom, Motion was out as trainer for Team Valor.
The pair had decided to split after Motion declined to train exclusively for Team Valor which expects to have 40 horses, including eight 2-year-olds, in training for 2013. In a statement, Motion said he did not wish to become a private trainer, and he will continue to maintain his own public stable, Herringswell Stable, while also retaining charge of the 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom for his Royal Ascot race in June. Motion, who has 70 to 80 horses at Fair Hill, said the Team Valor arrangement was always set up as something “that I could walk away from, and that is what I am doing.”
"We have enjoyed the association and are immensely grateful for the opportunities given by Barry and the partners at Team Valor International," said Motion.
"At this point I feel that Team Valor is best served by a private trainer situation and this is not something I am prepared to do. I am extremely proud of the job my team has done over the past two years and nothing will diminish the memories I have of standing before the huge crowds at Churchill Downs and Meydan with my family."
After winning the Dubai World Cup Motion made it clear to Irwin that he wanted to continue to train for other owners.
“We understood this and accepted his conditions,” Irwin said in a statement. However, due to the unique type of operation we run with partnership owned horses, we feel at this time it would serve our needs better to have one trainer that was exclusive to our stable. Graham agrees.
“I just feel that we get more bang for our buck with a guy that is 100 percent devoted to our horses,” Irwin said. “It wasn’t like I was disappointed in him. If Graham could be that guy [a private trainer for Team Valor], that would have been great. He has offered to continue to train our horses through the month of April until our new trainer has set up his operation."
Mettee new trainer
Irwin has hired Maryland native Rick Mettee to train all of its North American-based racehorses. Mettee's last job was as an assistant trainer to Saeed bin Suroor, running Godolphin's U.S. division for the Dubai royal family.
Team Valor’s horses will continue to be trained out of Fair Hill, Irwin said. Mettee, who trained some of Irwin’s partnership horses in the 1990s and has over the past several years trained the American-based horses of the international Godolphin racing operation, will take over the Team Valor horses as of May 1st.
“As a matter of fact, I offered to buy a barn at Fair Hill in the 1990s and have Rick train for us then,” Irwin said. “I really thought Fair Hill was the place we wanted to be. But Rick was young then, in his 30s, and there were things he wanted to do with his career. Now that he’s done them, it’s all working out.”
Animal Kingdom will remain under Motion’s care until the horse is retired, according to Irwin. Last December Team Valor sold a majority share in the horse to Arrowfield Stud in Australia, where he is expected to start his stud career this summer for the Southern Hemisphere breeding season. Five days after the world’s richest race it was announced that Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum’s Darley Stud acquired a 29 percent interest in the 5-year-old horse. Animal Kingdom will stand during the Northern Hemisphere breeding season at Darley’s Jonabell Farm in Lexington, Ky.
Brilliance in Dubai
In the days leading up to the Dubai World Cup, Animal Kingdom radiated brilliance. His coat was rubbed and brushed, and gleamed a rich chestnut. His physique was sculpted. In morning training his powerful stride glided across the synthetic surface.
When the gates sprang open Animal Kingdom ran as well as he looked. He quickly overcame an unfavorable post 12 and settled close to frontrunner and fellow American, Royal Delta. Rounding the far turn, he unleashed an explosive turn of foot and opened up a daylight advantage in the upper stretch. Well clear down the lane Animal Kingdom rolled home, an easy two-length winner. He traveled 1 1/4 miles in 2:03 1/5. He joins Hall of Famer Silver Charm (1997-98) as the only two Kentucky Derby winners to claim the Dubai World Cup.
"He is a tremendous horse," said jockey Joel Rosario, who made his move 2-1/2 half furlongs out over the synthetic Tapeta track. "He broke well today and he put himself close to the pace and put himself where he wanted to be. At the turn for home he was looking around--where is my competition-- so that was awesome.”
When not recuperating from unlucky injuries, Animal Kingdom trained most of the last two years on the Tapeta surface at the Fair Hill Training Center. It had to be a significant factor in his superlative Dubai performance. As for Motion, the victory was sweet redemption and proved to skeptics that Animal Kingdom’s 2011 Kentucky Derby victory was no fluke.
“I mean, it felt a little bit like Kentucky Derby déjà vu,” Motion said.”It was a serious group of horses on an even greater scale, and it was the same kind of run he made in the Derby, he just seemed so confident. He’s just an extraordinary animal.”
“I think of him as a grass horse, really. You need a grass horse to win on Tapeta. The fact that he has also won a Kentucky Derby on dirt is what makes him so exclusive.”
If there was ever an international horse, it’s Animal Kingdom. Sired by Leroidesanimaux, a horse bred in Brazil, he was produced by a German-bred mare named Dalicia. Motion was born in Cambridge, England, though he’s lived near Fair Hill for close to 15 years. Rider Rosario is a native of the Dominican Republic. Irwin is a former racing journalist who grew up in southern California and now runs his partnership business out of Lexington, Ky.
“He’s a very unique, unusual horse and he’s good enough to win any race,” said Irwin. “He has had two freak injuries and overcome both. Graham did an incredible job and I’ve never seen him look fitter. Credit the jockey, too, because as bone-headed a ride as he gave him last time (at Gulfstream Park), Joel was brilliant today. I’m thrilled to win a race like this without medication. It means a lot to the horse and the racing industry.”
In 2011 Animal Kingdom roared down the stretched to score in the Kentucky Derby and he finished a fast closing second in the Preakness Stakes. In the Belmont Stakes Animal Kingdom was clobbered by a horse striding out of the gate then clipped heels and nearly tossed his jockey. He rallied around the far turn but finished the race in sixth. It was the lone race he has not been first or second.
Animal Kingdom was subsequently diagnosed with a slab fracture in his left hind leg that required season-ending surgery. Still, he earned the Eclipse Award as champion three-year-old colt.
Animal King didn’t race again until February 2012 when he won a turf allowance race at Gulfstream Park in preparation for competing in the Dubai World Cup. Then he was diagnosed with a fractured pelvis. Off for nearly eight months, Animal Kingdom came back in an audacious spot, the Breeders' Cup Mile, where he rallied from being boxed in most of the stretch to finish a hard charging close second to Horse of the Year Wise Dan. In 11 career starts Animal Kingdom has been first five times and second in an equal number of races for $8,387,500.
Final race at Royal Ascot
Animal Kingdom might next attempt an even more historic feat – winning a major Group 1 race at the Royal Ascot meeting in late June. Alice Clapham, who became Animal Kingdom’s regular morning rider in Dubai, accompanied the horse on a flight to England and to trainer David Lanigan’s stables in Lambourn. If all goes according to plan there will be one final race at Royal Ascot, either the Prince of Wales Stakes at 1 ¼ on June 20 or the Queen Anne Stakes at a straight course mile on June 19.
Animal Kingdom would be the first Kentucky Derby winner to do so since Omaha in 1936. Plans call for Animal Kingdom to retire to stud in Australia, probably after the Royal Ascot race.
“He is an exceptional horse, probably the best horse in training at a mile and a mile and a quarter," said John Messara, Arrowfield Stud’s principal owner, in an interview after the race. “Graham and Barry are pushing me very hard to take him to Ascot. It’s something I'd like to have a go at. There are some logistic issues and some risks. Still, you don't often get one good enough to win at Ascot and this guy is.”
No American horse has won either of those Royal Ascot races. Motion was raised at Newmarket’s Herringswell Manor Stud operated by his parents Michael and Jo.
"As much as I wanted to win the Kentucky Derby, it has always been an ambition of mine to come back to England with a really good horse," Motion, 49, acknowledged. "This was over a mile, but I'd probably prefer the Prince of Wales Stakes over a mile and a quarter. I'd have no qualms about him handling Ascot. At Fair Hill he trains on an undulating steeplechase track and doesn't mind fast or soft ground."