Kentucky Derby

Trainer Graham Motion brings dual threat to Derby

Trainer H. Graham Motion talked about  Animal Kingdom's come-from-behind victory in the Spiral Stakes  on March 26, 2011 at Turfway Park. The victory put Animal Kingdom on the path to his Kentucky Derby triumph. Photo by Garry Jones
Trainer H. Graham Motion talked about Animal Kingdom's come-from-behind victory in the Spiral Stakes on March 26, 2011 at Turfway Park. The victory put Animal Kingdom on the path to his Kentucky Derby triumph. Photo by Garry Jones AP

Standing inside Barn 28 at Keeneland Race Course nearly two weeks ago, trainer Graham Motion was discussing the career progression of Grade I winner Toby's Corner and trying to answer why the son of Bellamy Road hasn't generated more banter heading into the 137th Kentucky Derby.

"I know he hasn't been flashy, but he hasn't done a lot wrong," Motion said. "Just he hasn't been in Florida or the flashy venues."

As appropriate an assessment as that was for Motion's leading Kentucky Derby hopeful, it was a description that could just as accurately describe the soft-spoken 46-year-old horseman who uttered the statement.

Casual racing fans may not recognize Motion's moniker the way they do Pletcher and Baffert. But in terms of respect and reputation, the native of Cambridge, England, lags behind few of his peers on the nation's backstretches.

This weekend, Motion has the opportunity to let even those who tune into his sport once a year know how adept he has become at his trade when he saddles both Toby's Corner and Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes winner Animal Kingdom in the Kentucky Derby as well as Kentucky Oaks hopeful Summer Soiree.

Since taking out his trainer's license in 1993, Motion has compiled an impressive list of achievements in relatively swift fashion.

It only took until August of 1993 for the father of two to record his first graded stakes victory. Along with counting such Grade I winners as Film Maker and Bullsbay among his nearly 1,500 career victories, Motion developed 2004 Breeders' Cup Turf winner Better Talk Now and took the 2010 Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf with Shared Account.

This November, days after his latest Breeders' Cup win, Barry Irwin's Team Valor International operation showed just how much they thought of Motion when they gave him their entire 40-horse stable to train.

"It is very gratifying (to see Motion get recognition)," said Irwin, founder of Team Valor. "I just like the whole setup of the way he trains. He kind of reminds me of Neil Drysdale in that he puts a lot of foundation in the horses, and he doesn't rush them.

"He's very methodical. He thinks everything out. He doesn't make any stupid moves."

Rather than being a showy presence on the backside, Motion is primarily based at bucolic Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland, where his European methods are an ideal fit.

A former protege of Hall of Famer Jonathan Sheppard and the late Bernie Bond, Motion is a big believer in letting the horses dictate their own development, hence the reason he has only had two prior Kentucky Derby starters.

In 1998, he sent Chilito into the Derby and watched him finish 11th. Ten years later, Motion saddled an overmatched Adriano to a 19th-place run, a move he vowed never to repeat.

"I haven't had great Derby experiences to be honest, and I just kind of made a promise to myself that I wasn't going to do that again," Motion said. "I really wanted the horse to take me there, and I think both these horses have.

"When I came here with Chilito, I did everything by the book. I got (to Churchill) a month early, I came right from Florida. I think you have to go a little bit by your own beat. You've got to stick with what works for you and not get caught up in it."

That task has become admittedly more difficult ever since Toby's Corner happily turned Motion's world upside down in the Wood Memorial.

The $1 million, 11⁄8-miles test was supposed to be little more than a showcase for then-undefeated juvenile champion Uncle Mo with Toby's Corner — despite his win in the Whirlaway Stakes over the Aqueduct track in February — viewed a mild challenger at best.

Motion's trainee was not informed of that plan, however, and ended up capturing the Wood Memorial by a neck over Arthur's Tale with the brilliant Uncle Mo fading to third.

Though Motion already had one Derby contender at that point in Team Valor's lightly raced Animal Kingdom, the fact he conditioned the horse who took down the division's pro-tem leader meant he had a heightened bout of attention and scrutiny coming his way.

"It's honest to God been a little surreal," Motion said of his life since the Wood. "We went to the Wood that morning just hoping to hit the board. I even said to (jockey) Eddie (Castro) in the paddock, let's just hope he hits the board and runs a good race.

"Five minutes after the race, and everyone is talking about you as a legitimate Derby contender. That's a big change around in 24 hours."

Even though the Wood Memorial winner resides in his barn, Motion accepts the fact more people view that race as Uncle Mo's loss more than Toby's Corner's breakout triumph.

Neither he nor his charges may win the battle of hype, but Motion has proven he is more than capable of stealing the big stage when he decides to venture onto it.

"It's more about the other horse losing than us winning, and that's fine. I don't mind," he said. "For me I'm excited to be running in the Derby. But he's already won the Wood, so in a way everything else is gravy."

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