No regrets: After Derby disappointment, Irish War Cry gets another shot at Belmont

As Graham Motion pondered what had just happened in the Kentucky Derby — why Irish War Cry had come to the top of the stretch in contention only to lose all his momentum over just a few strides — the next race, wherever it might be, was far from the trainer's mind.

"In the moments after the Derby, when you haven't run well, you don't even want to contemplate another one of these races," the plainspoken Englishman said, reflecting on the disappointment.

His first instinct was to give the talented but unpredictable Irish War Cry, who'd gone off as the second betting choice at Churchill Downs, a substantial rest. He spoke of the July 30 Haskell Invitational, named after the father of the colt's owner, Isabelle de Tomaso, as the next likely target.

Irish War Cry had other ideas. Back home at the Fair Hill Training Center near Elkton, he did not want to lie about. After 10 days of watching the colt's pent-up energy mount, Motion relented and took him back to the training track for a gallop.

On Saturday, he'll saddle Irish War Cry for the 11/2-mile Belmont Stakes, a destination he never contemplated on that dispiriting May evening in Kentucky.

"To have him just sitting in the barn when he's doing so well," Motion said, "it wouldn't feel right."

Not only will the chestnut colt run in the third leg of the Triple Crown, he's the morning-line favorite after Classic Empire was scratched from the field because of a foot abscess.

Irish War Cry's surprise favorite status speaks as much to the unreliability of this year's 3-year-old crop as it does to his talent.

Motion makes no bones about it — he does not know what to expect in New York. How will Irish War Cry handle the longest race of his career? Will he poop out as he did in the Derby and before that in the Fountain of Youth Stakes? Or will he be the horse who easily bested Preakness champion Cloud Computing in the Wood Memorial and Classic Empire in the Holy Bull Stakes?

Don't ask his trainer to give assurances either way.

"I couldn't tell anyone to bet on him," he said. "How could I, given those inconsistent performances?"

Irish War Cry has puzzled his trainer and handicappers alike. He has delivered his two worst performances when confidence in him was highest. But when written off, he has suddenly bounced back to look like one of the best horses in this erratic class.

Does that trend bode well for Belmont? Well, it was enough for Irish War Cry to be listed as a 7-2 favorite, just ahead of Japanese star Epicharis, who hasn't beaten any top horses, and Derby runner-up Lookin At Lee, who hasn't won a race since last summer.

Here's what Motion does know: No other horse has stepped forward to assert dominance over this Triple Crown series. And Irish War Cry's resume stacks up well against those of the contenders left standing.

Motion could not shake that thought as he watched Cloud Computing overtake Classic Empire in the last few strides of the Preakness. Were these horses really any better than his?

It was the same impulse many trainers felt as they contemplated putting their horses in the Belmont. Though casual interest will be diminished with no Triple Crown on the line and neither the Derby winner nor the Preakness winner present, the race is still one of the most prestigious in American racing. And it's there for the taking.

"This thing is wide open, completely wide open," said trainer Ken McPeek, who will start third-place Preakness finisher Senior Investment in the field of 12.

The Derby inevitably threw Motion into a period of pained self-examination. The race began chaotically, with Irish War Cry making a sharp move to the inside — not at the command of jockey Rajiv Maragh but of his own accord. He pushed McCraken into a violent collision with Classic Empire, harming the chances of two of the most talented horses in the race.

Such moments are perhaps inevitable with a 20-horse field, but the move was uncharacteristic for Irish War Cry, usually a calm horse.

"It was nothing he'd done before," Motion said. "And it was nothing Rajiv did. I wonder if that was him reacting to the crowd."

With Always Dreaming stalking early leader State of Honor at an aggressive clip, Maragh felt compelled to keep Irish War Cry within striking distance. That strategy seemed set to pay off when Irish War Cry lurked just off Always Dreaming's flank as they turned for home.

At that very moment, however, all the snap went out of him. It was uncomfortably reminiscent of his performance in the Fountain of Youth, where he also tried to remain close to a quick pace only to fade rapidly from contention.

Thinking about the similarities between the two races, Motion concluded that Irish War Cry might be best off when allowed to set his own pace.

"Just in my mind, I would like to see him run in a race where he could be left alone, where he'd be allowed to do what he wanted," Motion said.

Theoretically, the length of the Belmont should give him that freedom.

But Motion wasn't thinking along those lines in the hours and days after the Derby. Both he and Maragh were confused by Irish War Cry's performance after the colt had run such a composed race in the Wood Memorial and trained so well in the weeks leading to the Derby.

Even though he was a son of the durable champion Curlin, was Irish War Cry simply ill-suited for longer races? Motion wasn't sure, and in his uncertainty, he pulled back on his ambitions for the horse, probably the most precocious 3-year-old he has ever trained.

"I think I've looked for reasons not to run him," Motion acknowledged.

But the more he thought about the competition and the better Irish War Cry looked in training at Fair Hill, the more Motion believed he would regret skipping Belmont.

"It's a classic. It's the chance of a lifetime," he said. "At the end of the day, this is why we do this, to race them."

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