Graham Motion is among the most successful thoroughbred trainers in North America by any measure. After five weeks of pondering, he still can't tell you why Irish War Cry — his talented 3-year-old colt — tired badly and finished seventh in the Fountain of Youth Stakes.
"I'm pretty mystified to be honest," said the English-born Motion, whose barn is based at the Fair Hill Training Center.
On Saturday in the Wood Memorial, Irish War Cry will have a chance to win back his doubters and put himself on course for a start in the May 6 Kentucky Derby. He'll need a strong performance to convince his conservative-minded trainer he belongs in the big race and to accumulate enough qualifying points to make the 20-horse Derby field.
"He needs to prove he can adapt to these situations," Motion said. "With a really good horse, you shouldn't have to make excuses."
Irish War Cry is hardly alone in this year's 3-year-old class, which is becoming known for its wildly uneven performances as the road draws nearer to Churchill Downs. Every Derby prep season features inspiring twists and crushing disappointments. But this one has been pure chaos.
The crop of contenders is littered with lightly raced horses whose reputations were built on one stellar outing and a few impressive workouts. Potential stars have faltered week after week.
Classic Empire was the early consensus favorite after an impressive win in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last fall. But he showed little in losing to Irish War Cry in the Feb. 4 Holy Bull Stakes, and he's been in and out of training because of injuries and his own erratic nature. The Mark Casse-trained colt will have one more chance to prove himself in the April 15 Arkansas Derby.
Next up was Bob Baffert-trained Mastery, who won the March 11 San Felipe Stakes in smashing form only to pull up with a fractured left front leg before he could even reach the barn.
McCraken, the current darling of many handicappers, will try to break the curse in Saturday's Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. But he'll have to beat perhaps the deepest field of the Derby prep season to cement his favorite status.
At New York's Aqueduct Racetrack, meanwhile, Irish War Cry will begin the day as a 7-2 third choice behind Todd Pletcher-trained Battalion Runner, who hasn't even started in a stakes race, and Chad Brown-trained Cloud Computing, who finished second in the March 4 Gotham Stakes.
In other words, Motion's horse will seek redemption against competitors who've achieved less than he. It's been that kind of year.
Irish War Cry generated significant buzz when he easily handled Classic Empire in the Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park. Motion kept him in Florida at the Palm Meadows Training Center where the son of Curlin could hardly have worked more sharply leading up to the Fountain of Youth. He was so good that Motion already had his sights set on the April 1 Florida Derby and then Churchill Downs.
But Irish War Cry, who broke his maiden at Laurel Park in November, was a different horse when he emerged from the gate on March 4. Perhaps jockey Joel Rosario kept him too close to the lead in a fairly quick race. Perhaps the colt did not respond well to an unusually dry track at Gulfstream. Perhaps he was simply due for a step back after his career-best performance in the Holy Bull.
Whatever the reason, he never seriously contended in a race won by Gunnevera.
Irish War Cry's underwhelming performance caused Motion to amend his plan. He brought the colt back to Fair Hill so he could relax more than he had at bustling Palm Meadows. And he pointed to the Wood instead of the Florida Derby so Irish War Cry would have an extra week off.
"I couldn't run him back a month after the last race and feel good about it," he said.
The colt will also run under a new jockey, New York-based Rajiv Maragh.
Motion has liked what he's seen recently from Irish War Cry, who breezed five furlongs Sunday at Fair Hill and shipped to New York on Wednesday. But he doesn't blame anyone who's uncertain about the colt's chances.
"I don't think people jumped off the bandwagon too quickly," he said. "I think they jumped on the bandwagon too quickly in the first place."
That's Motion's natural reserve talking. Though he won the 2011 Derby with Animal Kingdom and enjoys the excitement of the prep season, he's skeptical of the hype that builds around 3-year-olds who've achieved little tangible success against well-stocked fields.
He hopes Irish War Cry can settle down and deliver consistently strong performances no matter the circumstances. But he doesn't pretend to know what he'll see when the gate opens Saturday.