The Breeders’ Cup Forum: Trainer Graham Motion
Graham Motion was a relieved man on Monday morning, seeing that 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom had come out of his comeback race two days earlier at Gulfstream Park in good order. Later that day, Toby’s Corner, the 2011 Wood Memorial winner, would make a solid comeback when third in the Grade 2 General George at Laurel. Motion is preparing Animal Kingdom for the March 31 Dubai World Cup.
The 47-year-old native of Cambridge, England, came to the U.S. as a teenager, worked first for Hall of Famer Jonathan Sheppard and then went to France, where he apprenticed under Jonathan Pease (and met his future wife, Anita, who was working for another trainer in Chantilly). Motion returned to the U.S. and was assistant to Maryland legend Bernie Bond before opening a public stable of his own in 1993. Breeders’ Cup Turf winner Better Talk Now put him on the national map in 2004, and last year’s Kentucky Derby victory by Animal Kingdom brought him even greater acclaim.
Motion took time out of his schedule earlier this week at Palm Meadows to talk with the Paulick Report. You can keep up with him and his Herringswell Stables at http://www.hgrahammotion.com/ or by following @GrahamMotion on Twitter.
How is life different today for Graham Motion than it was a year ago before you won the Kentucky Derby?
That’s the thing people always ask. It is life changing in some ways. It’s something you’ll always be known as, trainer of a Kentucky Derby winner. It is a legacy, and we all want to be remembered for something. It’s very gratifying. But has it changed my day-to-day life? No, I don’t think so.
What have been the biggest surprises and best experiences that were associated with your Kentucky Derby win?
The attention is extraordinary. Those two weeks after the Derby, no one could possibly prepare you for that. The media attention and the fact that you have the only horse that has the chance to win the Triple Crown, it’s quite a responsibility. Andy Reid (head coach of the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles) came out to watch Animal Kingdom train, and that was really cool. Later in the year he invited me to an Eagles practice, and I got to spend some time with him and see the pressure he was under. Those coaches are in a different world of day-to-day pressure. After Animal Kingdom won the other day he sent me a text.
You get a lot of respect when people see you can train a Kentucky Derby winner. I’m not doing anything differently than I ever was, and I’m not going to change anything. I never had this great allure to win the Derby – and that’s not belittling it in any way. After two experiences before, I said I wouldn’t go there if I don’t belong, and I still won’t.
How is Animal Kingdom doing after winning his comeback race on Saturday?
Great. He’s perky. He’s himself. (Sunday) I thought he was a little tired. He is a very hard horse to read. He’s very laid-back, almost lethargic. But I think it’s part of what makes him such a good horse.
What were your biggest concerns going into that race?
You always question yourself about fitness. Have I done enough? I felt he was 90% where I wanted him to be. I thought he should be good enough to carry the extra 10%.
What’s the travel plan for the Dubai World Cup?
I haven’t wanted to focus on it until we got through this past weekend. Now that we have, I’d better start planning. I’d imagine we’d go out 10 days to two weeks before the race. You’re in their hands, really.
Your Breeders’ Cup Turf winner Better Talk Now had quite a health scare last year. How is he doing?
He’s great now. As quickly as he got sick from botulism, he recovered just as quickly. He’s with us at Fair Hill, and gets turned out every day in a paddock.
Do you prefer places like Palm Meadows and Fair Hill to racetrack stable areas?
The options are so much greater. This place (Palm Meadows) is unique in the fact I can breeze on the grass once a week with a horse like this. Coming up under Jonathan Sheppard, I’m looking to do things differently out of the box. I try not to do things so much in a routine, to find things horses like to do every day. Fair Hill and Palm Meadows have to be two of the best training facilities in the country.
Is it more like your European roots?
That’s a small part of it, but it’s mostly being with Jonathan. That was my five years of college. That’s where I learned my trade and Bernie Bond put on the finishing touches. It’s all about getting the horse to relax. That’s what I learned to do with Jonathan. Keep them relaxed and in a happy environment. Racetracks are very limiting in what you can do with a horse. The atmosphere at tracks can be very intense, and the horses can never get a break.
What can U.S. racing learn from Europe that might benefit us?
I think we can all learn from each other. I wish we could take the best from both worlds. In England racing is so ingrained in people. Everybody knows about horse racing, where in this country it has such a small following. As a kid, it was such a big deal to watch the races on BBC every Saturday afternoon. It’s more about the horse than the betting in England. Plenty of people go racing in England for the sport.
Is there anything European racing can learn from the U.S.?
One thing people (in England) always ask me about are the claiming races. It’s so much of the structure of what we do. There is a downside, but it is what allows a guy to get into the game. It works. It might help them. In Europe, the handicapping situation is so difficult. Horses become so penalized. We have a structure here where horses have allowance conditions they can go through. There you go into handicaps right away.
Your stable is great in communicating to the public through the website and Twitter. Why do you make that effort?
I think it’s important. The biggest problem we have with racing in this country is that nobody wants to talk about it except for the two weeks around the Kentucky Derby. I felt a responsibility to feed that. If I don’t help out, who will? Newspapers don’t cover racing anymore. My thing with Twitter and the website is just trying to put the information out there. If it catches on or garnishes a little bit of attention, then that’s great.
I see other sports, other athletes doing this. We need to keep up with the times. We are so secretive, especially trainers, and it’s so unnecessary. I try not to be secretive about what we are doing.
Team Valor’s Barry Irwin has said he can’t convince you that you don’t need Lasix on raceday. Why is that?
My problem with doing away with Lasix is that we’re going to go back to how it was before in New York (the last state to permit the drug), where everybody is trying to use things under the table that nobody knows about. I honestly don’t believe that in some of these other countries people don’t use alternative medications to Lasix. It’s better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know. Most horses bleed to a degree. Lasix is one medication that we know helps horses that have this hemorrhaging. My feeling is let’s control the administration like they do in Canada. 5 cc’s are to be given by a state veterinarian. If we do away with Lasix, we’d better step up security big time. No one’s going to like that. You cannot tell me that people are not going to use other things.
Are you suggesting the rest of the world should adopt our rules?
That’s a tough point. No, I’m not. In England, everyone gives Lasix up to the race, then they take it away. A lot of it comes to the horsemanship side.
We are so much more proactive over here in scoping our horses. I want to be on top of our horses. When we consider a horse to bleed, it might just have a spot in his lungs. In many places bleeding is only identified if it’s external.
If you could make one change about racing, what would it be?
I think probably the most important thing is the fact that we don’t have a national standard for things – medication, licensing. It’s the root of a lot of positives because of the different withdrawal times and test levels. We have a lot of positives in this country, not because we have mischievous people. It’s because we have so many standards to go by. It’s medication, testing, licensing standards. They need to be national.