For the longest time, Graham Motion couldn't figure out what he had in Ring Weekend.
The horse was talented, for sure. A son of Tapit, the nation's leading sire, he quickly adapted to his workouts as a 2-year-old. But he could be difficult to handle. He often looked great galloping in the morning, then ran flat in the afternoon.
Motion, who trains Ring Weekend at Fair Hill in Elkton, uses words like "quirky" and "tricky" to describe the earlier personality of his Preakness Stakes contender.
The horse's erratic nature, combined with an undescended testicle that caused him to move awkwardly, pushed Motion to make a significant change. He and Terry Finley, who leads Ring Weekend's ownership group as the president of West Point Thoroughbreds, decided to geld the promising racer.
"It's always a tough decision, particularly with a 3-year-old, because of the financial impact of his breeding potential," Motion said. "But we agreed, clearly, that it was the right thing."
West Point Thoroughbreds is part of a growing trend in racing ownership. Instead of relying on one deep-pocketed horseman, Finley assembles a group of investors behind each of the group's dozens of horses. Ring Weekend, for example, has 12 owners from all over the country.
Finley then places the horses with well-regarded trainers around the country. This is the first top-notch horse he has shared with Motion. The two met at a party in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. "People look at him in a really favorable light," Finley said of the English-born trainer.
"It's a dream to train for an operation like that," Motion said. "They're buying quality yearlings and then they send them to you. It's a dream."
The gelding of Ring Weekend seemed to produce the desired effect.
Motion now uses words like "mellow" and "straightforward" to describe the horse. Of course, none of that would matter if his performance on the track hadn't improved.
He finished second, on turf, in his first race as a gelding. In his second, he overcame a difficult post position to win easily.
"That was the turnaround," Motion said.
The trainer next put Ring Weekend in the March 8 Tampa Bay Derby, a Grade 2 stakes. He won again.
"He really showed a new dimension by going to the lead that day and winning impressively," Motion said.
All of a sudden, Ring Weekend popped up on lists of top Kentucky Derby contenders. Motion had been there before, guiding Animal Kingdom to victory in the 2011 Derby as a 20-1 shot.
The trainer opted against putting Ring Weekend in one of the top Derby prep races. Instead, he sent him to the Calder Derby in Miami, near where the gelding was training at the time. He went off as a heavy 3-10 favorite. And he lost.
The old doubts returned.
"You knew going into the first turn he was just not carrying himself or moving anywhere near as well as he moved at Tampa Bay," Finley said. "At Tampa Bay, he just dropped his head and was really in a good rhythm."
Ring Weekend had never seemed comfortable at the Calder, from the paddock to the starting gate.
"I was disappointed," Motion said. "That was certainly a field he should've been able to beat."
He blamed himself for giving too many instructions to jockey Alan Garcia, who will also ride the gelding in the Preakness.
Ring Weekend still qualified for the Kentucky Derby field, and the plan was to enter him. He turned in a terrific workout the Friday before he was set to ship to Churchill Downs. But then Motion received a text message on Sunday morning, informing him the horse had a 102-degree fever.
Again, he felt the rug pulled out from under him.
As Motion watched the Derby set up at a slow pace, he felt in his gut that Ring Weekend would have been competitive. With the fever no longer an issue, he turned his attention to the Preakness, figuring he'd enter Ring Weekend if his workouts at Fair Hill were up to snuff.
The horse ran a promising breeze last Saturday morning, making the decision an easy one.
Motion said he's always excited to bring a horse to the Preakness as a Maryland trainer, though he acknowledged this year doesn't compare to the experience of bringing Animal Kingdom to Pimlico as the Kentucky Derby champion. That year, his horse couldn't catch Shackleford with a late charge.
But Motion called the experience "the most exciting of anything I've ever done."
Three years later, he carries no illusions that Ring Weekend is as talented as California Chrome, the 3-5 morning-line favorite for Saturday's race. Like all the other trainers taking a shot at the Kentucky Derby champion, Motion is hoping a few breaks go his way.
But he wouldn't have entered Ring Weekend, a 20-1 shot on the morning line, if he had no hope for victory. When he thinks over his time with the horse, the obstacles they've already surmounted, he can't help but be pleased.
"He's kind of fulfilled the potential he showed as a 2-year-old," Motion said.
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