No matter how hard you work, or how brilliant you may be, the art of training thoroughbred race horses often comes down to the simple matter of fate.
Graham Motion probably understands this better than most. In fact, he's thought about it a lot recently, especially during the past two weeks, ever since his life was turned into a state of beautiful chaos when he won the Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom.
On Saturday, Motion, 47, will live out a fantasy that is nearly 20 years in the making. He'll bring the Kentucky Derby winner to Pimlico Race Track, where his horse will likely be favored to win the 136th running of the Preakness. But in many ways, Motion's journey to Pimlico will have covered far more ground than just the 61 miles he will travel to Baltimore from his barn at Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, Maryland. The story of his life and his career is very much a story about fate, about the chances he took, and opportunities both won and lost along the way.
"I supposed it's life changing because it's what you're going to be remembered for," said Motion. "We all wanted to be remember for something, and I'm always going to be remembered for winning the 137th Kentucky Derby. That's pretty cool, I think."
Although Motion has deep roots in Maryland — he has lived here for two decades and he and his wife, Anita, have two children, Jane, 14, and Marcus, 8, who attend school in Cecil County — his passion for horse racing was born on the other side of the Atlantic ocean, outside of Newmarket, England, where he was born and spent the majority of his childhood. Motion's parents, Michael and Jo, worked with horses for a living, both managing them and training them, and many of his fondest boyhood memories involve races around his family's farm, Herringswell Manor, on the back of a pony, chasing his brother.
"I really grew up wanting to be a jockey," Motion said. "Steve Cauthen was one of my childhood idols."
Motion's family actually lived in the United States for several years prior to his birth, and they moved back to America when he was 16 years old. He finished up his education at the Kent School in Connecticut, and then spent a year working on a stud farm in France. The experience helped him realize he had no interest in the breeding aspect of thoroughbreds, but he did think he might want to be a trainer.
His father helped him get a job with Pennsylvania trainer Jonathan Sheppard, another transplanted Englishman, who soon became Motion's mentor. He did virtually everything while working for Sheppard, from cleaning stalls to winning steeplechase races. He even worked a stint as a jockey, and actually won a small race in 1989. Although he didn't have the genetics to do it long term — Motion still moves with the casual grace of an athlete, but is nearly 6 feet tall — the experience was invaluable.
"To me, it was like one of the first things I'd accomplished that I'd always said I was going to do," Motion said of his brief jockey career. "I think it was a really good thing for me to experience as a trainer. It gives you a very different perspective."
Motion's belief, even now, is that a trainer never stops learning the craft. And that has been his philosophy almost from the beginning, which is why he decided to spend a seasonal stint in France in 1990, working at a stable owned by George Strawbridge, one of Sheppard's employers. It might have been a somewhat-forgettable experience if not for the spark of romance that was lit when Motion, out for a ride one morning, flashed a polite but flirtatious smile at a beautiful woman riding in the other direction. The woman, also a native of England, would one day agree to marry him.
"We were each in a big string of horses, close to 60 following one trainer," said Anita Motion. "I was all the way at the back of a string, and Graham was all the way at the front of another one. We just passed one another in the morning and I guess that was it. It was an instant attraction, I guess."
Early days in racing
The relationship quickly blossomed, and she and Motion both moved to Maryland so they could stay together when Motion got a job working for Bernie Bond, one of the state's premier thoroughbred trainers and a master at working with 2-year-olds. It was another invaluable experience, even though money was scarce and the days were long and exhausting, because the Motions learned what the did and did not want for their future.
"It was really the best thing I could have done," Motion said. "It was the perfect way to go back to basics."
They lived in a small apartment in Sykesville, sharing it with another assistant trainer who worked for Bond, Adrian Rolls. The Motions had one car between them, so each morning, they'd drive to the racetrack in Laurel around dawn, and Anita would clean the stalls while Motion and Rolls took horses out to work. She would head to her own job on a horse farm, and return at the end of the day to pick up her future husband.
"We would literally be falling asleep on the way home," Anita Motion said. "But it was fun because we did it all together. That's basically what we love doing, working with the horses. As you get bigger, you become more removed from that. You become more of a manager. But those were really good times."
In 1993, the Motions were away on a rare vacation, a cruise around the British Virgin Islands. Motion called to check in with Rolls, to make sure he was still going to pick them up from the airport, and Rolls was frantic. Bond, 75, had suddenly decided to retire with no advanced warning. They had no idea what was going to happen to them, whether the owners who worked with Bond would stick with them or abandon them for someone with more experience.
"We spent a mad couple of weeks, hoping we weren't going to lose all the horses," Motion said. "We were all in a blind panic."
Many of the owners wanted to bail, but Skip and Gertrude Leviton, an elderly couple who owned several quality thoroughbreds, convinced them to give Motion, then just 29, a chance. They even paid him several months of training fees in advance, just so he could buy feed and get his license.
Motion justified the faith the Levitons showed in him by winning 21 races that year, including three stakes races with Gala Spinaway, a temperamental horse who the Motions still have to this day. (He's now 23 years old.) In many respects, he helped shape their future.
"It's pretty amazing all the events that have happened to us," Anita Motion said. "We've been extremely fortunate."
Over time, other owners saw the success Motion was having, and sent more horses his way. One of those horses was Better Talk Now, a gelding who thrust Motion onto the national scene when he won the 2004 Breeders Cup Turf at 27-1. Motion sounds almost wistful when he talks about him now. He even hands out pictures of "Blackie" to reporters who come to his office, just as a reminder that Animal Kingdom never would have come to him had he not had success along the way. In 51 career starts, Better Talk Now earned over $4.35 million in earnings.
"He was really our big horse," said Motion, who has won over 1,500 times and earned more than $64 million in purses during his career. "We owe him a lot."
There have also been misses along the way. In the late 1990s, Motion trained a filly named La Ville Rouge, who won six times in 25 career starts, but is better known for being the dam of Barbaro. Had owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson kept La Ville Rouge with Motion, he likely would have trained the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner. But for reasons they never really explained, the Jacksons decided to transfer Barbaro's dam to trainer Michael R. Matz, who also trains horses at Fair Hill. When Barbaro won the Derby, Motion figured his one chance to win the sport's signature race had slipped away.
"I've thought about that a lot," Motion said. "I had some horses for the Jacksons early on, and for one reason or another, they left. Now I have some horses for them again and we've remained really good friends. I've never really discussed with them why they moved La Ville Rouge. It happens a lot in our business. You kind of roll with the bumps. But I always felt like maybe I'd missed the ball. That was my shot."
Calm and clean
It looked like he had another Derby contender this year in Toby's Corner, winner of the prestigious Wood Memorial, but the day before he was going to ship to Louisville, he came up lame during workouts. When Rolls spotted the hitch in Toby's Corner's trot and informed his boss, both men were fighting back tears when they made the call to rule him out of the race.
Motion, though, has never strayed from his philosophy. He is a big believer that the subdued, European-style atmosphere of the Fair Hill Training Center is better for horses than life at the race track, and he runs his operation much like a family. His wife handles the business-side of things, and his two assistant trainers, Rolls and Dave Rock — both fellow Englishmen — are two of Motion's closest friends. Rolls even lived with the Motions for two weeks after having back surgery this year. His office manager, Sue Kenny, was a childhood friend of his sister.
"Graham is very calm about everything," Kenny said. "Nothing ever rattles him. And that has an effect on the whole operation, when you think about it. Because of his demeanor, it goes all the way down to the help. We have so many comments about how calm it is around the barn. Well, that's why. There is no shouting, no screaming, no running around like a chicken with your head cut off. He wants it calm, and he shows people how he wants it to be."
That philosophy had tremendous appeal to Barry Irwin, who runs the Team Valor partnership that owns Animal Kingdom. He wanted his horses in a calm, relaxed, European-style training center and he didn't want them administered any drugs to help them run. Motion's Derby victory has celebrated by some in the business because of his reputation as a "clean" trainer. He's never been cited for a medication violation, and last year was on of only two trainers in the Top 20 earnings without a violation, according to the New York Times.
"It is something I feel strongly about," Motion said. "I don't like to dwell on it. A lot of people have kind of focused on it around the Derby, and it puts a lot of pressure on us, to be honest. Anyone can have an accident when you're dealing with 100 horses and 80 employees. You can have a mistake, and I feel a tremendous burden from it. Some day, someone is going to make a mistake and it's going to be a much bigger headline because of this. But it is something we've created, and something I feel very strongly about."
Irwin believes Motion has the discipline and the talent to be as good as any trainer in the business.
"He's very thoughtful," Irwin said. "He's very analytical. And he's extremely well organized. I didn't realize how well organized he was. He's right up there with [Todd] Pletcher and [Neil] Drysdale. They're the two most impressive guys I've worked with, and he's right there. Graham is just this laid back guy who watches everything, thinks about it, and doesn't get emotional. There are not a lot of spikes up and down. He's kind to the people he works for, and asks for their input. I like that."
Motion has tried to stay calm and cool these past two weeks. He walks the family Labrador retrievers, Ginger and Bentley, around the Fair Hill property after watching Animal Kingdom work. He went to his daughter Jane's soccer match, caught up with old friends, and tried not to feel overwhelmed by the moment. He won't allow himself to dream beyond the Preakness. Not yet, anyway.
There is special feeling accompanies a Maryland trainer bringing the best 3-year-old in the country to Pimlico Race Course for Maryland's biggest race. It's been a long, but wonderful journey, and he plans to soak up every last second.