06/05/2017 2:30PM

Irish War Cry ready as he can be for Belmont Stakes

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Barbara D. Livingston
Graham Motion and Irish War Cry are preparing for a run at the Belmont Stakes at peaceful Fair Hil Training Center.

ELKTON, Md. – Irish War Cry established himself as an elite member of the 3-year-old crop this winter with wins in the Grade 2 Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park and the Grade 2 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. But after he finished 10th as the second choice in the Kentucky Derby, some are curious if the real Irish War Cry will show up Saturday in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes.

There are reasons to believe he will run to his ability.

Irish War Cry worked six furlongs at his Fair Hill Training Center base Saturday, and trainer Graham Motion said he was “quite excited about” the work.

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A May foal, Irish War Cry also has been developing over the past few months and brings an athletic frame, “tremendous stride,” and composed disposition to the table, said Motion.

“I don’t know how I can sit here with a horse who’s in good form and not run him in a classic,” Motion said while watching Irish War Cry walk the shed row at Fair Hill. “The mile and a half is a question mark. I don’t think any of us really know how they’re going to handle the mile and a half. It’s an unknown entity.”

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The other unknown is why Irish War Cry failed to run his race in both the Fountain of Youth, where he finished seventh as the favorite March 4 at Gulfstream, and in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, where he looked to be full of run under regular rider Rajiv Maragh coming into the stretch. Motion has been reflecting on those races – the only two losses in the horse’s career – and has his theories.

“The Derby, like the Fountain of Youth, is a little bit of a head-scratcher,” Motion said. “Physically, I can’t give an answer why he ran so poorly in the Fountain of Youth or the Derby, other than the fact that they were run on slightly weird tracks. Gulfstream was really deep and cuppy that day. It was dried out. Churchill was kind of the other extreme. It was kind of wet and tacky. It was just a very clingy, sticky track. Does he need a perfect track? I don’t know.”

Irish War Cry, a Curlin colt who races for his breeder, Isabelle de Tomaso, has registered his four wins on fast tracks but over three different surfaces. He won his first two races, a maiden special weight and a wire job in the Marylander Stakes, at Laurel before stakes success at Gulfstream and Aqueduct. Motion elected to have the horse’s final work for the Belmont Stakes on the dirt track at Fair Hill, where he put in his final work before the Wood Memorial, which he won by 3 1/2 lengths over a field that included Cloud Computing, the next-out winner of the Preakness Stakes.

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Fair Hill is an expansive, exclusive training center in northern Maryland, nestled along a rolling country road that runs into Newark, Del. There is a one-mile dirt track wrapped around a seven-furlong Tapeta surface, as well as a standalone grass course, used for both training and steeplechase racing, that features an uphill run to the finish line. Some of the privately owned barns have walking rings as well as individual paddocks for turnout. The atmosphere is relaxed, with training hours running from 6 a.m. to noon. Fair Hill is a peaceful retreat for horses, and that is one thing Motion likes about it.

“The other thing about the Derby experience, I think it’s a lot for the horses to deal with,” Motion said. “Every day is a lot of commotion. You know, we came in late, so he was kind of the center of attention a little bit, and I think it was a lot for him to deal with. I like the fact that he’s been here, very much like we did before the Wood. We were able to come here and keep him here to the last minute, and he’s in a routine that he’s used to. He gets turned out in his paddock every day, so he’s more in his routine.

“He’s a very relaxed horse, and I think we probably need to take more advantage of that. I think he’s a horse that you can probably place wherever you like, and, obviously, running in the Belmont, it’s going to be important that he’s settled. But I think he’s a horse that will settle.”

Motion said Irish War Cry is scheduled to train at Fair Hill on Wednesday before shipping to Belmont, then will gallop in New York on Thursday and Friday. He is optimistic that the horse will handle the surface at Belmont.

“It’s an unknown to me,” Motion said, “but I thought the advantages of keeping him here over taking him up and breezing on the track – I just preferred to keep him here. He handled Aqueduct fine without working there, and I think, hopefully, he can do the same at Belmont.”