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 Amazon.com 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 http://www.brendanomeara.com.