Amid deluge of attention, Animal Kingdom poised to take Preakness
ELKTON, Md. -- Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom has spent the last 11 days at home in a place called Fair Hill, which sounds like a '90s Hugh Grant movie (a bad one, just to be clear). But Fair Hill is actually a sensational place for a horse, as thoroughbred trainers like to say, to be a horse, instead of an object of pari-mutuel angst and media scrutiny, which is what the stately beasts become as soon as they are unloaded from a van and placed into a stakes barn somewhere.
Fair Hill is 60 miles northeast of Baltimore, not far from Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania or I-95. It has hillsides that rise and fall across 5,700 acres dotted with maples and pines. It is the kind of place where a man could sit and write poetry. (It is also the kind of place where a journalist, having driven from the Baltimore suburbs while drinking buckets of hot tea, could emerge straight from his car and step into the woods for some relief. Not saying that actually happened, but it's a practical alternative for anyone in that situation.)
Here is where trainer Graham Motion, who will turn 47 on the day after Saturday's 136th running of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in North Baltimore, trains all of his horses, more than 100 of them. He lives a mile away in a house with his wife, Anita, who runs the business side of Herringswell Stables, and their two children. Motion comes to work every morning at 5:30 a.m. and doesn't leave until every horse has been attended to by him or his staff and every human client has been dealt with.
That routine was changed abruptly when Animal Kingdom won the Derby, and thus became the most (the only?) famous racehorse in America. (Actually, Secretariat, who hasn't run a race in 38 years, might still be the most famous but that's another discussion altogether.) And AK didn't just win the Derby, as Motion said on Wednesday morning, "He really did it quite easily.'' He galloped along behind a historically slow pace and then drew away in the stretch to win by 2 3/4 lengths despite minimal urging from first-time rider John Velazquez.
Animal Kingdom's only real misstep was the vague disinterest he demonstrated after making the lead inside the eighth pole at Churchill Downs, not so much from fatigue, but from immaturity at the roar of 160,000-plus fans. Motion demonstrates this absent-mindedness by flapping his hands at ear level. "It's understandable in that environment,'' he says.
Then came the change, rolling in like a blizzard. One minute Animal Kingdom is a 20-1 shot in the 19-horse Kentucky Derby field, a not-entirely-unpopular choice, but still relatively anonymous. And then suddenly he is the temporary savior of horse racing. Him. His trainer. His ownership (a partnership headed by the aggressively iconoclastic 68-year-old Barry Irwin). His jockey. But mostly his trainer, who is out front every day.
This role escalates for two weeks as the Preakness approaches. There are dozens of storylines leading into the Kentucky Derby, but there is really only one in the Preakness: Can the Derby winner win again and then try for the Triple Crown? (There are exceptions: When filly Rachel Alexandra ran the Preakness in 2009 that was bigger than Derby winner Mine That Bird's rollback.)
The effect of this sudden interest bottleneck is that people like Motion (mostly) and Irwin have enormous attention suddenly thrust upon them. There are few occasions like it in sports. Maybe the NCAA basketball upstart that wins a game or two or three in the tournament when nothing was known or expected of them (Hello, VCU). Maybe an Olympian like Rulon Gardner who toils in practice for years while no one watches (or cares) and then beats an unbeatable Russian and suddenly everybody cares.
The Preakness thing, it's just like that.
And it was written all over Motion's face when he walked from the barn area into his small office late Wednesday morning. His tireless office manager, Sue Kenny, was sitting there, along with Motion's three purebred Labs (one of which would positively not give up his seat for me to interview Motion). This year I had first talked to Motion eight days before the Derby on the backstretch at Churchill Downs. He's a young-looking 46, and he was more than happy to chat for half an hour about himself, his work and his two Derby prospects (not only Animal Kingdom, but Wood Memorial winner Toby's Corner, who was the alpha colt until he came up lame on Monday of Derby week and pulled out of the race).
Now, Motion looks whipped, a much older 46. Bags under the eyes. Bed head. (OK, the guy works training horses in a barn, a job that might get you dirty, but still. ...) He flopped down behind his desk.
"This is overwhelming," Motion said. "And I don't know how anybody could possibly prepare you for it."
Much to Motion's credit, he has tried to not turn down a single interview request, even from the smallest radio station whose hosts probably don't know what state hosts the Kentucky Derby.
"These are racing's two weeks, aren't they?" says Motion. "I feel like I should do my part in that."
As we talked, Motion would occasionally stare off at the walls of his office before coming back to the conversation. At times, I didn't know whether to ask a follow-up or toss the guy a pillow. (Still, he was great on every subject we discussed.)
Racing media has seen this before. In 2003, a gelding named Funny Cide won the Derby and his trainer, Barclay Tagg, subsequently turned his normal crankiness up to full-on grouch.
"This is exhausting,'' Tagg said to a
On the other hand, a guy like Bob Baffert, who has won three Derbies (and three times went to New York with a shot at the Triple Crown), was born to carry the sport. Every interview for Baffert is like he was sitting in the bar alone and a bunch of people showed up to talk. Sometimes he slips and says something entertaining. D. Wayne Lukas is the same way.
In 2008, highly suspect (and frequently suspended) trainer Rick Dutrow (Big Brown) transformed himself from rogue to villain in only two weeks. A year later, Chip Woolley (Mine That Bird) took his crutches to the rostrum every morning at Pimlico. He would lay the drawl on a little thicker and drop the cowboy hat a little lower, and by Friday you thought he was going to pull out a six-shooter and start picking cans off the fence.
Sudden celebrity (of a kind) and attention are utterly transformative. (Thinking back: John Shirreffs brought Giacomo here after winning the Derby in '05 and did not change in the least, which was great practice for handling Zenyatta.) Motion is in the middle of that. The machine is taking chunks out of him, but he's not fighting it.
But Motion isn't running the race. Animal Kingdom is running the race and while Motion carries the sport for the media (with plenty of help from Irwin), Animal Kingdom is being a horse.
From a handicapping perspective, he looks like a very good horse. He was resoundingly the best in the Derby, and Motion says the race seemed to take little out of him. Of course, even Motion won't know that for sure until Animal Kingdom breaks from the gate in the Preakness. Yet Baffert, who has won the Derby and Preakness back-to-back more times than any trainer (and never won the Triple Crown), lives by this rule: "A horse that wins the Derby -- he's peaking. [The Preakness] is the easy leg, if you've got a horse like that."
Animal Kingdom has run just five races in his life and just three as a three-year-old. Motion's decision (against Irwin's instincts) not to run him in the Blue Grass Stakes, after winning the March 26 Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park, now works in Animal Kingdom's favor. He should not be a tired horse. His breeding veers from current U.S. favor, where the most important characteristics are speed, speed, and finally, speed. Dalicia, Animal Kingdom's German-bred dam, ran 18 of 21 racers at distances of at least 1 1/4 miles, and hit the board nine times.
Animal Kingdom is not facing a stellar field, but there are some dangerous foes. Dialed In, who will be running for a $5.5 million bonus (but, it must be said, knows nothing about it), was lightly trained leading into the Derby and could benefit from a faster pace in the Preakness, which is likely. Dance City was a respectable third in the strong Arkansas Derby and comes in with five weeks' rest. Either could win if Animal Kingdom is dulled by his Derby.
But he doesn't looked dulled. He looks robust and prime to repeat his Churchill run. It's been 33 years since Affirmed won the Triple Crown and in that time, 11 horses have come to Belmont with two wins and failed to collect the third. Animal Kingdom should become the 12th to try.