Before he was in the Kentucky Derby field, Irish War Cry started his racing career as a 2-year-old right here in Maryland, at Laurel Park.
Last November, the colt won in his trip out, surging from the back of the pack at the far turn in a six-furlong maiden special weight race and bursting ahead near the finish line for a commanding victory. On New Year's Eve day, he went to the front early in the seven-furlong $100,000 Marylander Stakes race at Laurel and fended off a formidable challenge from O Dionysus, winning by a nose.
Following three graded-stakes appearances and two wins, in the Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park in Florida and the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct in New York, Irish War Cry heads to Louisville as one of the top contenders in the first jewel of horse racing's Triple Crown.
And he was almost joined by another thoroughbred that started out at Laurel, El Areeb. The Cathal Lynch-trained, Laurel Park-stabled colt racked up two wins in Maryland, including the James F. Lewis III Stakes, and two graded-stakes wins at Aqueduct before being sidelined with a knee injury.
Neither horse is owned by a Maryland farm, and both won the biggest races on their resumes out of state, but the success of Irish War Cry and El Areeb points to a resurgence in Maryland racing these last few years, fueled by increased purses, larger fields, and investments in Laurel Park by the track's owners, the Stronach Group.
Irish War Cry's trainer, H. Graham Motion, the owner of two barns at Fair Hill in Elkton, feels that the competition in Maryland, even during what some perceived to be leaner years, has remained top-notch.
"I've always felt the caliber of racing has always stayed very strong in Maryland," he says in a phone interview. "People haven't upped and left, there's always been a core group of really top trainers in Maryland."
But the changes, headlined by $7 million spent on new barns and another $7 million used in grandstand and clubhouse improvements, have not gone unnoticed by Motion. In addition to that, money from casinos has increased the prize money for races, drawing in more competition, and the Maryland Jockey Club, the organization that oversees Laurel and Pimlico, has reported a significant increase in action from the bettors.
"I just think they've raised the level of competition, perhaps, by the way they're doing things there," says Motion.
Sal Sinatra, president and general manager of the Maryland Jockey Club, points to Lynch's relocation from Parx Racing, just outside Philadelphia, to Laurel in 2016 as a strong indicator of Maryland's rejuvenation. (For his part, Motion, an English expat, has been training horses in Maryland since the early 1990s.)
"Because the MD program is on an upswing, Cal Lynch's owners are investing in better and more expensive horses, El Areeb is a great example," he writes in an email. "I myself am very bullish on our racing program direction and am optimistic that this year isn't an anomaly and more of a prelude of what's to come."
You'd have to go back to the 2006 Kentucky Derby to find a field with two horses that established themselves in Maryland, writes Jim Dunleavy, a reporter for racing's bible, The Daily Racing Form, covering the Mid-Atlantic, in an email. That year, it was Barbaro, the eventual winner who, like Irish War Cry, trained at Fair Hill, and pre-race favorite Sweetnorthernsaint.
"Although El Areeb was injured and off the Derby trail early, it is unusual to have two top 3-year-olds come out of Maryland the same year," writes Dunleavy.
The path for Irish War Cry hasn't been without its bumps. Following a spectacular win in the Holy Bull in February, a race that pitted him against the championship 2-year-old of 2016, Classic Empire—it was a "took-your-breath-away performance," says Motion, and the one that told him he had a Derby horse—Irish War Cry regressed badly in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream, finishing seventh after looking gassed. The Wood Memorial, in April, was a convincing run that helped push Irish War Cry's stock back up. He stalked the lead at the start, drove ahead on the backstretch, and seemed to find that extra gear to close it out.
So what will it take for Irish War Cry to find the winner's circle at Churchill as Barbaro did?
Motion says his horse will need performances similar to the Holy Bull and Wood Memorial "and then some," as well as the bit of good luck required to get a good trip in the heavily crowded Derby field.
He knows from experience, having guided Animal Kingdom to victory in the 2011 Run for the Roses. There are similarities, in Motion's view, with the way the two horses handle the spotlight.
"One of the things I saw with Animal Kingdom that was so important was that he had such a good attitude. He just took things in stride," he says. "And this horse is very similar in that respect, he handles things very well."
Should Irish War Cry come to the Preakness as a Derby winner, Motion suspects there might be a bit of pride for Maryland's horse racing community, but not much media attention beyond the local market. The thrill of the experience will be enough.
"Having come to Pimlico with a Kentucky Derby winner, I can tell you it is the coolest thing you can do," he says. "I mean, winning the Derby is pretty special, but when you come to Pimlico and you're the only one that can win the Triple Crown, that's about as cool as it gets."
No matter what happens, there will still be the dedicated Maryland horse racing fans, owners, trainers, jockeys, stable hands, and hot walkers who have weathered the years of turmoil and seen the more recent resurgence—they can say they saw Irish War Cry and El Areeb way back when, before they took the national stage. And that's saying something.