Graham Motion walked shed row of Team Valor’s barn with his son Marcus waiting for Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom to arrive at his new home in Fair Hill, Maryland. The barn is cool and bright and tucked away in a corner of the pastoral setting that is the Fair Hill Training Center.
The daily serenity of 5,700 acres of parkland, trails and streams had been thrown into a state of upheaval by local, and not-so-local, media waiting outside to report Animal Kingdom’s arrival by van.
“You never really expect things like this to happen,” he said. “And we definitely didn’t expect it to happen this fast.”
But “It” had happened and the path to having the uniquely bred chestnut colt land in a newly purchased barn was not without twists and turns, not without struggles and not without a little bit a good fortune.
Motion started out 2010 a little slowly by his standards, but rode a string of graded stakes wins by his trainees all the way to victory in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf last November at Churchill Downs.
That run of success married up perfectly with Team Valor CEO Barry Irwin’s desire to have all of their horses in one place, under one trainer, away from a racetrack and in a much more European training center. Irwin found all he wanted in Graham Motion, Herringswell Stables and Fair Hill.
The horses Irwin sent Motion included Pluck, Crimson China and Animal Kingdom. Pluck had just won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. Crimson China was purchased for the expressed reason of running in the Kentucky Derby. And Animal Kingdom, he was an Irwin homebred by a lightly regarded sire whose name most cannot pronounce. But to be certain, he was bred to run all day.
As the equine transport tractor-trailer rolled through dust it had kicked up pulling down the remote gravel lane on a part of the training center you could hardly find by accident, Motion was there with family, friends and the media. Motion would tell the media, “"I'm trying not to think about it too much to be honest,” adding, “I'm just trying to enjoy winning the Derby right now."
In the group of well-wishers was Motion’s wife Anita and daughter Jane. There were several Herringswell employees, recent Barbaro author Alex Brown and even on-air racing analyst Jeannine Edwards showed up to watch.
Apparently the drive from Louisville to Fair Hill left Animal Kingdom a little hungry. He loped off the van and immediately commenced grazing. From a distance he looks like a big horse, but up close he doesn’t exactly give you impression of being a smallish thoroughbred racer. He is immense and muscular. He is built like a tank top to bottom. And, according to Assistant Trainer Heather Craig, he is a cool customer who is un-phased by much.
As news crews converged he paid little mind. When one news crew did a live shot from in front of his stall, Animal Kingdom laid down to take a nap. The reporter knelt down and so did the cameraman so they could keep the resting Derby winner in the shot.
The ways this story seems to be perfect are many. Trying to find the right way to lead into it, well, it is hard to go wrong. Which one is more appropriate:
1. Family man, all-around gentleman and consummate professional wins Kentucky Derby.
2. The anti-Dutrow, one of the few US-based trainers never to have had a positive drug violation, just won the Kentucky Derby.
3. British native, training a horse sired by a Brazilian-bred, with a German-bred dam, confounds all Kentucky Derby bloodline logic while winning the Derby.
There are more possible leads, but all of them are accurate. We haven’t even really touched on the brilliance of Team Valor CEO Barry Irwin. After Pluck returned to racing in 2011 with lackluster performances, there were some who questioned such a massive move to putting all his horses under Motion’s care. Was it the right move?
The stunning win by Animal Kingdom in the Vinery Spiral at Turfway quieted some critics. Even then, some said it was just a win by a horse bred for the turf over a synthetic surface.
What happened last Saturday pretty much silenced all those critics. Sure, critics are critics from gate-to-wire. For now many are joining Graham Motion, the class act that he is, and sitting back, enjoying a rather satisfying Derby win. The fan and media attention are slowly growing at Fair Hill. If the pace of this week is any indication, there will be a downright invasion force of media and fans camped out to glimpse Animal Kingdom. Here is hoping the Derby winning horse handles it all as well as the Derby winning trainer.