Handsome and accommodating, with a charming British accent and a Kentucky Derby victory to his credit, Graham Motion may be the nicest trainer in all of horse racing.
So what is he doing in the middle of a diabolical plot to turn the world’s greatest Thoroughbred race into a mere prep for the late summer Jersey shore showcase known as the Haskell Invitational?
“We’ve joked about it,” said Motion, the trainer of Wood Memorial winner Irish War Cry. “Look, the Haskell is huge to Mrs. de Tomaso.”
That would be Isabelle de Tomaso, 86-year-old owner of Irish War Cry and daughter of Amory Haskell, who was founder and then president of Monmouth Park from 1946 until his death in 1966. The Haskell, a Grade 1 for 3-year-olds run in late July or early August at Monmouth, is named for de Tomaso’s father.
That’s just one of several intriguing plot lines Irish War Cry will carry to post 17 Saturday as the 6-1 morning-line fourth choice for the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby.
There’s Rajiv Maragh, the 31-year-old jockey from Jamaica who on July 10, 2015, suffered eight broken vertebrae, broken ribs and a collapsed lung during a nasty spill at Belmont Park. He wore a body brace for nine months.
“I saw him at the lowest point he was in,” said Motion, who was the first trainer to give Maragh a mount after his return. “He could barely get around for six months. It’s remarkable he’s here.”
When Joel Rosario, Irish War Cry’s regular jockey, chose to remain at Keeneland and ride Practical Joke in the Blue Grass Stakes instead of coming to New York to ride in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, Maragh got the mount. And won.
Then there’s the 52-year-old Motion, a native of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, who after finishing 11th with Chilito in the 1998 Kentucky Derby and 19th with Adriano in the 2008 version hit the finish line first with Animal Kingdom in 2011.
“I had a couple of not great experiences before Animal Kingdom that taught me plenty,” said Motion, who was fourth with Went the Day Well in 2012. “I think the more you do it, the more it helps you.”
Motion put experience to good use with Irish War Cry, who ran away with the Holy Bull, beating Classic Empire, only to roll a gutter ball, beaten 21 3/4 lengths in seventh place in the Fountain of Youth. “A debacle,” said Motion, with the pronunciation of DEB-u-cull.
Perplexed, Motion returned the son of Curlin to his home base at the Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, Md. Irish War Cry relaxed and returned to form there. When Motion shipped him to the Big Apple for the Wood, Motion saw the horse he had seen in the Holy Bull.
“It was pretty emotional to get him back on track,” said Motion. “It was a big deal.”
It was a big deal next door. Irish War Cry is a New Jersey bred. Though conceived in Kentucky, he was foaled by Irish Sovereign at de Tomaso’s Overbrook Farm near Colt’s Neck, N.J. Thus the state’s struggling Thoroughbred industry — just 85 registered foals in 2016 — hopes Irish War Cry will provide a much-needed boost. Just two New Jersey breds have ever won the Kentucky Derby; Regret in 1915 and Cavalcade in 1934.
“It would certainly bring attention to it,” said Motion of the New Jersey program. “Sometimes I think you almost expect too much of these things, but no doubt it could only be a positive.”
Then there’s de Tomaso, who avoids media interviews after her hearing was damaged from racing sports cars. In fact, she met her late husband Alejandro de Tomaso in 1957 while driving race cars in Europe. Together, the two founded de Tomaso Modena SpA, an Italian sports car manufacturing company. Now, de Tomaso splits her time between homes in Italy, Palm Beach and the farm in New Jersey.
She will be at Churchill Downs on Saturday, but she’s really looking forward to the Haskell.
Said Motion with a smile, “We’ll take them one step at a time.”
Irish War Cry results
Wood Memorial (G2)
Fountain of Youth (G2)
Holy Bull (G2)