Sunday, May 15, 2011

Wheels in Motion

Graham Motion's been at it.

A Kentucky Derby win launches the relatively obscure into a spotlight brighter than Hugh Hefner's smile. Who knew Barclay Tagg, Michael Matz, John Shirreffs, or Bennie Woolley before they ate Derby pie?

I covered my first Triple Crown as a reporter in 2008, Big Brown.

(Sidebar: once you get into horse racing you start to forget years, or, if you remember years, associate them more with Derby winners than anything. For instance I got married on September 25, Super Saver. I adopted my dog on April 27, Giacomo. Graduated from high school in June of Charismatic and college in Smarty Jones. Didn't bet on Animal Kingdom on May 7, Animal Kingdom.)

But in Big Brown I traveled to Baltimore for the Preakness and was at the post draw, which, at the time, had no Kegasus. I was nervous, as I usually get when I speak with trainers (because there are many who talk down to non-horse people—because we're not horse people—and we want to know a little bit about their craft and relay it to fans and readers. God forbid! Moving on ...), but especially because this was my first experience face-to-face with many. While most folks spoke with Michael Iavarone of IEAH, a man stood in the corner, by himself. He was the trainer of Icabad Crane. It was Graham Motion.

I forget the questions I asked him, likely the usual mundane junk reporters ask trainers at post draws because you have to ask these usually mundane questions (How do you like your post? What will you have to do to beat Big Brown? How's he training? ... Did you like buffet? Scotch or bourbon? I usually throw in one or two of those.)

I spoke with him for about five minutes and never did he speak down to me. Rather he treated me with respect and answered everything evenly and with that ever-gentlemanly tone he approaches all his interviews. He is what you would call a "class act."

I saw that after the Kentucky Derby at the press conference. But what I also saw up on that podium was unnerving and had nothing to do with Motion.

1. John Velazquez. Future Hall of Famer, won the Derby after Uncle Mo was scratched to due his ever-present GI infection. Body language told you this guy's dog was hit by a truck. Sure, the extenuating circumstances were as follows: Robby Albarado had the mount ===> Gets kicked in the face by a horse ===> Takes off Thursday and Friday mounts ===> Team Valor elects to change riders once Velazquez is available ===> Albarado is miraculously back in the saddle on Saturday and wins the Grade 1 Humana Distaff with the Dale Romans-trained Sassy Image ===> Velazquez goes on to win the Derby on what Albarado had told him was, "a good horse." ===> What's this about karma?

Velazquez was quick to tell NBC that (his horse wasn't warming up well? Not this time!) he won it for both he and Albarado and hinted that he'd take care of him. I thought that was smooth. In the press conference, Velazquez seemed short. When people asked him what it was about Animal Kingdom, he gave them that look as if to suggest you'd be better off eating Frosted Flakes and minding your business than asking me what I think of this horse. This is a horse that is lightly raced, done most of that racing on forgiving surfaces like grass and polytrack and, as a result, probably has as good of a shot at winning the Triple Crown as Big Brown did back in Big Brown.

2. Barry Irwin. I don't know how I feel about Irwin. I love spirited, out-spoken, strong-opinionated people. We're too conservative and PC these days. I loved what he had to say about Animal Kingdom's mare (a German mare who was drug free, very strong, and that the Germans don't allow drugged horses to breed with theirs) who, subsequently, produced a damn good Kentucky Derby winner. Loved that. But when he took this platform to call out past trainers for lying to him and took this platform to call out track management for the way partnerships are treated, I felt like I wouldn't want to touch this guy with a 39-and-a-half-foot pole. I even met someone on Derby Day who called Irwin a "scumbag a--hole." Irwin has a point about his complaints, but you just won the Derby on the one stage where people actually pay attention to you and this is what you say?: that trainers are liars and that track management stinks. See you next year, says the general fan ... maybe.

Motion was subdued and drained right after the race but was quick to add that he thought privately training for Team Valor was a "good decision on my part," with a smile. I'd keep my old clients on speed dial because Irwin may be on top of racing's Everest now, but what'll happen later?

Motion has the demeanor to get it done. He deserves this kind of spotlight to highlight how good he's been (the legendary Better Talk Now, third place in the Preakness with Icabad Crane, won the Whitney with Bullsbay in Mine That Bird).

The world just met Graham Motion and trust me, it'll be better for it.

Brendan O'Meara is the author of Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year. It is available for pre-order at or at SUNY Press's website. Read about narrative nonfiction at The Blog Itself, more horse racing at The Carryover Classic, read his "Bourbon Underworld" stories at Kentucky Confidential, follow him on Twitter, or friend him on Facebook. His website is

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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Saturday, April 30, 2011

Say No to Drugs

The Kentucky Derby, if nothing else, is like the Olympics of horse racing. It’s the one time millions and millions of people tune in and watc. Which is why it’s important to use the Derby as a political tool the way the Olympics illuminate injustices and issues that squirrel away in rat holes the rest of the year.

Saving the game, if it’s worth it, starts with saving the breed. Canon bones are thinner than Paris Hilton and horses noses bleed worse than a UFC fighter.

I followed Phil Schoenthal, a young trainer on the Maryland circuit, around the Mid-Atlantic sale in 2006. He courted a potential owner as they scouted out yearlings. One colt had canon bones as thick as soup cans. The client said, “He’s got Budweiser bones,” referring the conformation of a Clydsedale.

Phil said, “That’s soundness to me.”

Now there’s a concept!

If horses that had bleeding masked by Lasix are bred to mares who have a family history of bleeding, well, boy howdy, what do you think will become of Junior? Bill Boniface, general manager of Bonita Farm, told John Scheinman of Kentucky about what happened to a filly he liked (that happened to be a bleeder) who was bred to Spend A Buck.

“I think there’s overemphasis on Lasix,” Boniface said. “[A friend] had bought a share in Spend A Buck and when he won the Garden State Stakes he bled a bucket after the race. This filly was a bleeder. ‘Certainly you’re not going to breed that filly to that stallion.’ But she did. Years later one of her son-in-laws, who was training the first offspring came up to me and said, ‘I ran that filly out that mare you liked so much to that stallion and don’t you know she bled.’ The fact that we’re breeding the horses that were dependent upon Lasix and dependent upon medications; they will produce horses that are dependent upon the same thing. There is no doubt in my mind about it. The fruit does not fall far from the tree.”

Win-Star Farms Bill Casner has been vocal of late about the use of performance enhancing drugs on North American racehorses. His stance is that it’s got to end in an editorial he contributed to the Thoroughbred Times.

“North America's liberal medication rules are completely out of step with the rest of the global racing community," Casner writes. “The perception is that racing performance in North America, relating to pedigrees and our catalog pages, is tainted due to permissive medication. The world is increasingly reluctant to come to America to buy our horses. Public perception certainly sees racing as a sport that uses drugs to enhance racing performance and this reinforces the belief that racing is ‘dirty.’”

I’d be interested to see what, if any, drugs Super Saver was on when he won the Derby; what drugs Colonel John was on when he won the Travers; what drugs Bluegrass Cat was on when he won the Haskell. Maybe none. You know that Well Armed was cleaner than Kate Littleton when he won the Dubai World Cup. Of course, all Win-Star horses.

Why is it so hard to come down with a unilateral ban against drugs? Maybe because at this point all the horses that fill up a card are so dependent on them that there’d be no horses to left on the backside.

Take Bonita Farm’s Deputed Testamony, the oldest living Classic winner, now 31 years old, won the Preakness in 1983, never raced on medication. This horse broke a track record at 9.5 furlongs on three legs. He’s like Jordan with the flu, Favre with a shoulder; he’s Kellen Winslow, Sr being pulled off the field. And you know what? Despite that break he showed two things: heart and durability.

“He came home on three legs and set a track record that still stands,” Boniface told Scheinman. “He was all heart.”

Think Big Brown’s runners won’t limp on sore feet?

This sport can’t be fixed overnight, so it must invest in what will promise to keep it strong: sound, unbroken horses running on adrenaline instead of bute.

Brendan O’Meara is the author of the forthcoming book Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year to be published by SUNY Press in July 2011. You can read more at The Blog Itself and follow Brendan’s Twitter feed. He is also the Bourbon Underworld writer for Kentucky Confidential for this year's Kentucky Derby. His web site is

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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Saturday, April 16, 2011

No Mo-mentum

So you hear the one about the Kentucky Derby favorite who lost the Wood Memorial? I’m starting to think that the Wood might be the frogurt in a Simpsons Tree House of Horror episode: cursed.

Bellamy Road? Eskendereya? Tale of Ekati? Nobiz Like Shobiz?

Uncle Mo’s irritable bowel syndrome may have gotten the best of him. The spit box may want to test him for Taco Bell— a legal performance de-hancing drug. Trust me, nothing about a Grilled Stuft Burrito will get you ready for anything short of a marathon session on the porcelain. This guy knows what I’m talking about.
Should we be surprised that Uncle Mo was flatter than the earth circa 1400? And we need to stop thinking that just because Secretariat had an abscess in his mouth in 1973 that Uncle Mo 38 years later with little to no racing experience in his three-year-old year will have a legitimate shot at winning the roses.

Maybe his GI tract infection is the equivalent of running a marathon with Montezuma’s Revenge. But then again given all of trainer Todd Pletcher’s Hall of Fame accolades, could it be that this is one of his worst training jobs? THE worst? That he got the yips?

Uncle Mo has only two races as a three-year-old, one if you discredit that Timely Writer thing. Say what you will, these horses need experience. The trend of late is to race them less and less. Part of that is freshness, part of that is care, part of that is caution, and much of that is the Kid Glove Trend.

Uncle Mo’s two-year-old season was smashing, everything from his maiden victory to the Breeders’ Cup. All he had to do was stay sound since his spot for May 7 was already reserved. But what good is that? Eventually you have to take the Porche out of the garage. When they finally did they realized that the spark plugs were shot with only three weeks to go.

Alas, here is the publicity engine choo-chooing like Jess Jackson. At least we know that Mo won’t run unless he’s 100 percent.

“I am relieved that the vets were able to find a reason why we got a disappointing performance from Uncle Mo in the Wood Memorial,” said owner Mike Repole in a statement. “I, like all racing fans hope that Uncle Mo will be 100% on May 7th and in the starting gate at Churchill Downs. Though it has been a lifelong dream to run and win the Kentucky Derby, if Uncle Mo is not 100%, we will skip the Derby and go right to the Preakness. I have the utmost confidence in Todd, his staff and Mo’s team of veterinarians. We all appreciate everyone’s concern and care for this wonderfully gifted champion.”

Sounds like Jackson set a good precedent.

Even Pletcher has been dragged into the press release gamut ala Steve Asmussen, something Pletcher’s never done. Could’ve used something like this during the Life At Ten fiasco.

“Although it is not my standard practice to share a horse’s examination results with anyone other than the owner,” said Pletcher in a statement, “I feel that Uncle Mo’s disappointing performance in the Wood Memorial warrants an explanation. After his three extremely impressive starts as a two-year-old and his dominant performance in the Timely Writer S. in March, the Wood Memorial was an uncharacteristically poor effort. On Tuesday, we did a number of tests and pulled some blood work ... He will ship to Churchill Downs on April 18th and will have two works before May 7th. If I do not feel that Uncle Mo is 100% for the Kentucky Derby, both Mike and I agree that he will not run. My main focus is to return Uncle Mo to optimum health in the next 23 days, and I am optimistic that we can accomplish this goal.”

What are we to make of all this? It’s horse racing. How about that late Pick 4 at Keeneland today?

Brendan O’Meara is the author of the forthcoming book Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year to be published by SUNY Press. You can read more at The Blog Itself and follow Brendan’s Twitter feed. He is also the "Bourbon Underground" writer for Kentucky Confidential for this year's Kentucky Derby. His web site is

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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