Saturday, May 21, 2011
For Motion, Preakness loss hits hard
By Claire Novak Special to ESPN.com
BALTIMORE -- In the moments after a disappointing loss, two things always happen.
The winner is surrounded by a jubilant throng. The loser gets to watch.
For trainer Graham Motion after Animal Kingdom's runner-up finish in Saturday's Preakness, the latter assignment was a bitter pill to swallow. He stood on the sideline of Pimlico racetrack and clasped his hands behind his back. His shoulders slumped a little. He completed a TV interview, then a radio interview, and then he simply waited alone for jockey John Velazquez to extract himself from a circle of reporters.
It was a completely different scene from two weeks ago, when the English-born horseman found himself in the winner's circle at Churchill Downs, hoisting the trophy for the Kentucky Derby -- America's greatest race -- to the sky.
"I can't believe I'm not bawling right now," Motion, 47, said dejectedly, somewhat dazed. "The horse ran so huge. I'm a little speechless."
If it weren't for the fact that this was the only thoroughbred in the world who could have used a win in the Preakness to take a shot at the Triple Crown this year, everyone would be thrilled that he ran so well. Instead, for the third year in a row, there will be no Triple Crown contender. (The last horse to have a shot was Big Brown in 2008.) To come so close to winning and a chance at greatness, to feel it slipping from your grasp, isn't easy.
"The horse ran a great race, he did nothing wrong," Motion said, and to emphasize his feelings he repeated, "the horse ran huge."
Velazquez came out of the questioning crowd and Motion put an arm around his shoulders. They walked back to the jockeys' room and watched the replay and a group of reporters came along, standing at a respectful distance until the duo was done.
"Look, I'm disappointed, but he won the Derby and shoot, we just [barely] got beat in the Preakness," Motion said when he turned to address the scrum. "I'd love to win the Triple Crown. There's so much pressure to do that, because it would have been so good for the game, but it wasn't meant to be."
Of course, there are certain things to be thankful for. The half-length margin that separated the Derby victor from Shackleford, the horse who took the Preakness, was no disgrace. Animal Kingdom, a runner who had never won a race on dirt until 14 days ago, proved his Derby score at odds of 20-1 was not a fluke. The surprise of dirt hitting him in the face may have taken him further out of the race than usual, his connections said, but he was closing strongly at the end, a positive sign for races ahead.
In the final moments of Animal Kingdom's chase, as the colt loomed from his position of 13th after a slow break to 12th at the three-quarter pole to a five-wide closing third at the head of the lane and finally, second on the wire, Motion could feel his hopes fading.
"He was coming and coming, but I had a feeling he wasn't going to get there," he said. "It was a different scenario today because he was so far back that he really got a lot of dirt in his face and he kind of struggled with it a little bit. I couldn't see much, but I could see when they turned along the backstretch that Johnny was having to jigger him along a bit just to stay up, so that concerned me. It's a different scenario getting a lot of dirt in his face, but the horse did nothing wrong. He was running. I felt like maybe if we'd had another sixteenth of a mile, we'd get there. I can't believe the way he drove the last three-eighths of a mile."
Coming into the Preakness, the stress and pressure put bags under Motion's eyes, a constantly-worried expression on his face. Animal Kingdom was his one and only Kentucky Derby victor, and he was only trying to keep the horse healthy, to stay out of his way. Still, he graciously accommodated every interview request, tried to answer every question as the hype and the hope and the glory swirled around him. He felt a duty to the sport, he told reporters, an obligation to represent it to the masses as the spotlight shone upon him.
The commotion won't be over, for everyone will want to know if Animal Kingdom will run in the Belmont Stakes on June 11. The runner seems cut out for the third classic's longer distance of a mile and a half, but Motion is best known for his conservative training approach and his preference for resting horses, especially off big efforts like the colt has turned in this Triple Crown season. It will be a challenging decision for the connections to make, but immediately after the Preakness, the trainer did not dismiss the idea.
"It may be a possibility, as long as he's OK," Motion said. "I know Barry [Irwin, president of ownership group Team Valor Stable] mentioned it as a possibility and Johnny feels strongly that it suits him. We'll see how he comes out of it; he's had two really tough races but if he comes out of this one the way he came out of the Derby, I don't see why we wouldn't take him."
Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets. You can reach her via her website.