Aside from a few birds chirping and a breeze stirring the new spring leaves, nary a sound punctured the 7 a.m. serenity on a recent Tuesday at Fair Hill Training Center near Elkton. Graham Motion's placid demeanor matched the setting.
"Honestly, it's hard to ever leave here," he said, pacing the barn he operates with his wife, business partner and closest confidante, Anita.
Even as he said it, however, he knew he'd soon be pulled away to the grandest, loudest stage in American racing, carried there by the most precocious 3-year-old who has ever come his way — Irish War Cry. If Irish War Cry wins the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, Motion would become just the fifth active trainer with multiple Derby wins.
He also knows that a victory by Irish War Cry would be a proud moment for the racing industry in his adopted home state of Maryland. The chestnut colt, a 6-1 fourth choice in the morning line, would be the first Derby winner to break his maiden at a Maryland track since Spectacular Bid 38 years ago.
The Derby, with its crush of casual fans and its relentless media obligations, is perhaps a less perfect match for the soft-spoken Englishman. But Motion knows the race is essential to the sport and to his own reputation in that sport. And yet the race is not an obsession for him as it is for so many others. He is not at Churchill Downs every May, because he does not gear his training toward preparing 3-year-olds for the Triple Crown series. The horse has to convince him running in the Derby is a good idea. Not the other way around.
"I don't dread it," Motion said of the Derby stage. "I feel like it's the only time of year when people want to talk about horse racing. So it's important to be a part of that."
Motion, 52, generally ranks among the top 20 trainers in North America in annual purse winnings. He won the 2011 Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom and Breeders' Cup races in 2004 and 2010. And yet his victories come up well down the line when clients, employees, friends and colleagues extol his virtues.
Motion seems like a perfect fit for Irish War Cry. The horse was the rare Motion trainee to assert his Derby worthiness without leaving many doubts.
To start with, he's a sturdily built son of Curlin, the 2007 Preakness winner and two-time American Horse of the Year. In part because of that lineage, Kentucky-based Hill 'n' Dale Farms has already snapped up Irish War Cry's breeding rights.
Besides looking the part, he steadily passed the tests Motion threw at him, starting in the fall of his 2-year-old season. He won his first race at Laurel Park in November, then another on New Year's Eve. Then it was off to Florida, where Motion liked what he saw enough to stick the colt in against eventual Derby favorite Classic Empire in the Holy Bull Stakes on Feb. 4. Irish War Cry whipped the more touted horse.
His next step was the only skittish one he's taken in an otherwise perfect career. With jockey Joel Rosario perhaps keeping too close to the lead in the Fountain of Youth Stakes on March 4, Irish War Cry mysteriously went kaput and finished seventh.
Motion acknowledged that he was as perplexed by the turn of events as anyone else. But in a way, the poor result confirmed his inherent skepticism about young horses. Only a fool pretends to know for certain what a 3-year-old thoroughbred is going to do next. Motion refers to his outlook as pessimistic. But in his chosen field, it's more like realism.
He took Irish War Cry back to Fair Hill, hoping the familiar, peaceful setting would restore him. He also changed jockeys, giving the mount to his friend, Maragh, who was coming back from his own terrible defeat in the form of that career-threatening racing accident. It wasn't that Motion had lost faith in Rosario, who he knew would have other options for the Derby.
"But I wasn't going to sweat it, because I didn't think it would be a terrible thing to have a new outlook on the horse," he said.
At the Wood Memorial on April 8, Maragh found the calm that Motion had hoped to see in Irish War Cry, striking at precisely the right moment to secure an impressive victory. Just like that, the colt was right back at the top of Derby contender lists.
Asked whether he now views the Fountain of Youth as an aberration, Motion laughed and said, "I'm trying to."
Calm and compassionate
Those who know Motion are more apt to talk about his loyalty, his genuine love for horses, his professionalism and his inherent calm, which he needed after the Fountain of Youth.
"There's nothing to knock about Graham," said Rajiv Maragh, the jockey who will ride Irish War Cry in the Derby. "He covers all the bases. He does it top class. And he's one of the nicest gentlemen you'll ever meet."
Maragh had ridden several superb horses for Motion before he suffered terrible injuries in a July 2015 spill. Rather than forget the wounded jockey, Motion visited Maragh at his Long Island home and peppered him with encouraging messages. When Maragh finally felt well enough to leave his home for a meal, he and his wife dined with Motion and Anita. Then, as Maragh's comeback was just building steam, Motion put him on Irish War Cry, only the most gifted 3-year-old he's ever trained.
"I don't know how you would even put into words what that kind of faith means to a person," Maragh said.
"The horse is absolutely first with Graham, and he does everything as naturally as he possibly can," Bowman said. "And then he's impeccably organized, which speaks to my heart. The barn is always spotless, and everything happens right on time."
Phelps and Bowman crossed paths with Motion on social media and ended up entrusting several horses they'd bought to his care. The horses weren't as fast as they had hoped. But even in disappointment, Bowman admired Motion's manner.
"He doesn't b.s. you at all," he said. "Which a lot of guys would. He'll tell you, 'Your horse isn't that good, but we'll do what we can.' "
Bowman recalled how one of his horses was lost to another owner in a claiming race. That can lead to a perilous future in which the animal is run into the ground. But rather than forget about the horse, Motion tracked him, ultimately bought him back for $5,000 and retired him to a peaceful life.
Motion's reputation is so sterling that when he was flagged for his first-ever medication violation in April 2015, the incident was seen more as an indictment of a confusing testing system than as a stain on the trainer's resume. He opted to fight a highly public appeals battle against Kentucky racing officials rather than accept a modest five-day, $500 penalty for using the muscle relaxant Robaxin.
"If we as trainers cannot rely on the guidelines that are given to us, how on earth can we be expected to operate within the rules?" Motion wrote in a letter to the editor, published by BloodHorse.
His suspension was dropped more than a year later.
"He's a great representative for horsemen," said two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Doug O'Neill. "Tons of class, tons of patience. His horses are always well-turned-out when they come to compete. It's an honor to be one of his peers."
Derby a goal, not an obsession
On Saturday, Motion will try to join O'Neill as a two-time Derby winner. But perhaps it's because Motion grew up outside Newmarket, England, where the Derby is not the be-all, end-all that it is in the United States.
"I have to be careful, because I don't want to belittle it in any way, but I wasn't brought up around it," he said. "When I started training, it wasn't like I had to win the Derby. I always hoped we would go there with the right horses, and the first two times I did it, maybe I didn't have the right horses. But no, I certainly wasn't driven to be there every year. I only wanted to be there for the right reasons."
Horses always shaped Motion's world. His parents, Michael and Jo, managed them and trained them on the family farm, Herringswell Manor. To this day, Motion's operation is named Herringswell Stables.
He met Anita when they passed each other on horseback in the French countryside. The couple's children — 20-year-old Jane and 14-year-old Marcus — have grown up around the family business. Anita Motion's favorite memory from the 2011 Kentucky Derby is of her kids celebrating with the kids of Animal Kingdom's owners.
Since then, Motion has been able to step back and appreciate the wonder of what's happening. Irish War Cry is New Jersey-bred and no such horse has won the Derby since 1934. His owner, Isabelle de Tomaso, is a daughter of the famed Haskell racing family but made her own name in the world of Italian autosports. Maragh is back from a near-death experience to ride this wonderful animal. And Motion has been entrusted to run the whole glorious show.
"I have to pinch myself that I'm in this position," he said. "That we can be going to the Derby with a Jersey-bred that's going to be the third or fourth favorite. That's pretty extraordinary, really. I mean, what are the chances?"
Editor's note: An earlier version said the last New Jersey-bred to win the Derby was in 1933.