Faugh a Ballagh is a 19th century Irish battle cry meaning "clear the way."
Even mild-mannered trainer Graham Motion must have been tempted to shout that command watching his 3-year old colt Irish War Cry storm down the stretch in the $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct racetrack on April 8. The New Jersey bred son of Curlin now has 110 qualifying points which punches his ticket to the seemingly wide open Kentucky Derby on May 6.
With new jockey Rajiv Maragh in the irons, Irish War Cry was content to sit patiently behind Battalion Runner down the backstretch. When Maragh asked the colt to go, he blew by his rival just inside the eighth pole and drew off to win by 3 1/2-lengths striding out beautifully at the wire. Racing in the gold and maroon stripes of Isabelle de Tomaso, he recorded a big 101 Beyers Speed Figure in the 1 1/8-mile race.
The victory enabled the handsome chestnut to rebound from a head-scratching seventh place finish in the Fountain of Youth Stakes in early March.
"It's extremely gratifying to get this horse back on track," related Motion, who won the 2012 Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom. "That was huge. I don't remember having a situation like this, when I felt that so much was on the line. I think that Rajiv must have felt like he had a lot of horse because he moved to the (race) leaders so confident."
After the Fountain of Youth debacle, the colt was shipped to the relaxed confines of Motion's home base at the Fair Hill Training Center. The trainer also made an equipment change for the Wood by adding a figure-eight noseband for the Wood.
“A figure-eight gives you a little more control,” explained Motion. “He had the perfect trip. This is the kind of trip I hoped he had last time out. I don’t understand what happened. It’s just a complete puzzle to me.”
The colt improved his record to four wins in five starts with earnings of $699,460.
"He was sharp into the first turn," Maragh said. "There was a little pace in front of him, which is what we were hoping for to get in a good tracking position. He relaxed real easily. He did everything I wanted him to do without a lot of effort. He was always in a smooth rhythm. He wasn't rank at all. He settled beautifully."
At Motion's suggestion Maragh galloped the horse three times in the mornings leading up to the Wood so the jockey could see that Irish War Cry is a sensible colt.
"By getting on him in the mornings, I didn't think I'd have a hard time getting him to settle, because he goes so easy and comfortable," Maragh noted. "We ran good together today."
It was an especially meaningful victory for Maragh who only returned to racing last fall after spending 16 months on the sidelines from a nasty spill at Belmont Park in July 2015. The jockey suffered several broken vertebrae, a broken rib, and a punctured lung after his mount fell and landed squarely on the jockey.
“When I was down and out, these are the days I dreamed about,” Maragh related. “These are the days that made me feel I wanted to ride. You never know if you'll get them again after being off so long. I can't be more thankful for everyone who has been there for my recovery and supporting me now that I'm back. I've never been so emotional after a race in my life as I was after this.”
A product of the de Tomaso breeding program, Irish War Cry is bred to run all day and has tactical speed to be up near the lead in a race. He also has a high cruising speed down the backstretch and into the far turn and nice acceleration when called on. A late foal (May 2), Motion said there is still plenty of room for improvement headed into the Triple Crown races.
Pioneer female auto racer
Horsepower has long played an important part in the life of 86-year old Isabelle de Tomaso. She is a daughter of Amory L. Haskell, the longtime president and chairman of Monmouth Park and the namesake for that track’s premier $1 million race in early August. As a youngster Isabelle rode horses while growing up on the family's colonial estate, Woodland Farm, near Red Bank, N.J. An executive with General Motors, Haskell rode with the hounds and started the Monmouth County Hunt Race Meet. In addition, he bred top-flight show dogs and racehorses, including Blue Sparkler, the champion older mare of 1956.
Haskell's spirited daughter left the U. S. and became a highly accomplished auto racing driver in Europe. She helped pioneer the role of female drivers in the early 1950s racing in British MGs and Maseratis against some of the sport's best in races like Le Mans and the 12 Hours of Sebring. In 1956 she met Alejandro de Tomaso of Argentina, a driver on the international circuit. They became driving partners and married a year later. After retiring from the sport they settled in Italy and in 1959 formed De Tomaso motor company that built exotic sports cars fancied by celebrities like Elvis Presley.
Irish War Cry is a son of Curlin, out of three-time winning homebred Irish Sovereign by Polish Numbers by the great stallion Danzig who was foaled at Marshall Jenney's Derry Meeting Farm. de Tomaso planned the mating, her most successful American runner to date. The colt is the sixth winner from six starters for his dam. All of the foals have names that begin with Irish. Irish War Cry's female family has earned high marks producing a number of European classic winning horses and sires, including Saint Crespin, Aureole and Tambourine.
de Tomaso keeps a handful of mares in Ireland and currently has five mares in the United States. Each year, she sends her best mares to be bred in Kentucky, but they return north to drop their foals at Overbrook Farm in Colts Neck, N. J., just seven miles down the road from Monmouth Park. Woodland Farm is no longer in the family, having been sold following Amory Haskell's death in 1968.
Irish Sovereign was bred this year to Exaggerator, another son of Curlin who entered stud this year. Exaggerator's three Grade-1 victories included the Haskell at Monmouth Park, the race named for de Tomaso's father. Irish Sovereign’s four most recent foals were sent to Motion at Fair Hill. Irish Strait is a 5-year old half brother to Irish War Cry by English Channel and Irish Politics is by Political Force.
After the Wood Memorial victory Irish War Cry returned to Fair Hill.
"I don't see a necessity to get him to Churchill in a hurry, it's very busy over there," Motion said. "One of the reasons I wanted to get him home from Palm Meadows (Training Center) was to get him in a quieter environment at Fair Hill, where he's used to being, and I think it's shown in his behavior this last week.
"I think he's been more settled and I think it's going to be advantageous to him to keep him there as long as I can. Right now, that's my gut feeling. I can certainly change my mind, but I'd probably keep him at Fair Hill and give him his one work before the Derby there."
Two New Jersey-breds have won the Kentucky Derby, Regret in 1915 and Cavalcade in 1934.
Battle of Midway
of MidwayBattle of Midway opened some eyes in the Santa Anita Derby where he outdueled two rivals on the lead and still had enough left to finish a strong second beaten a hal-length. He earned 40 Derby qualifying points and sits at No. 18 on the Derby list as of April 14. Owned by Rick Porter of Songbird fame, the colt showed a lot of grit, running hard every step of the way. He appears to be getting good at the right time.
“He ran really well,” jockey Corey Nakatani said of the Santa Anita Derby runner-up. “I wish we could’ve gotten a breather at some point, but it didn’t work out that way. He ran dynamite.”
“If he didn’t get pressured so much early, I think we would have won, but that’s how things go," said trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. "I’m very happy with him. He’s been progressing all along, and if he can continue, he should be a contender. He still has room for improvement.”
The son of Smart Strike has turned in a pair of sharp efforts at 1 1/16 and 1 1/8 miles, but it's an open question whether he’s ready for a grueling mile and a quarter in a 20-horse field.
Songbird Back in Action
Porter's star filly Songbird, who suffered a minor leg injury in mid-March, returned to the track for an easy three furlong workout on April 8. It was the four-old Medaglia d'Oro filly's first drill since losing by half a nostril to Beholder in the November 4 Breeders' Cup Distaff.
"It was very nice and smooth, she galloped out nicely," Hollendorfer said. "She's the same, believe me."
The Distaff was her first defeat following 11 straight wins to start her career. In a stretch run for the ages, Songbird fought head-to-head with the older and more experienced champion Beholder. Her first race this season could be ironically the Beholder Mile at Santa Anita Park in early June. A two-time champion, Songbird has earnings of $3,712,000.
"It's the same with all horses—you take one step at a time," Hollendorfer said after the workout.
Photos courtesy of KentuckyDerby.com, Anita Motion, and Gulfstream Park