05/03/2012 1:53PM

Kentucky Derby 2012: Irwin, Motion make for an odd couple that thrives

From left: Jockey John Velazquez, trainer Graham Motion, and owner Barry Irwin are shooting for back-to-back Derby victories

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – A week out from the 2012 Kentucky Derby a news release came from Team Valor International, the ownership group headed by Barry Irwin that won the 2011 Derby with Animal Kingdom. The story on Team Valor’s website included this sentence on Team Valor’s return to the Derby with the colt Went the Day Well:

“Incredulous reporters want to know if it is luck or skill, and how Irwin landed upon a New York-bred in England that had the tools to make it into the Kentucky Derby . . . .“

The sentence nailed Irwin’s public image: Self-important, self-promoting.

A few days earlier, the trainer of Went the Day Well, Graham Motion, got a couple hours worth of laughs on the social media site Twitter relating his visit to a car-rental counter in Louisville. The agent helping him wanted to know if Motion had ever been to the Kentucky Derby. Motion, true to form, could not bring himself to mention his Derby win.

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And that tale pinned down Motion’s public essence. If one had a dollar for every Derby story this year that links Motion and the word “humble” or “polite,” one would have a sizeable bankroll for Saturday’s betting.

“Barry does speak his mind, and he’s not afraid to say what’s on it,” Motion said. “In that respect, I think we’re complete opposites. Maybe that’s why we get along, you know?”

The Team Valor–Motion relationship flowered quickly and has shown no sign of wilting. Team Valor took out an entire barn at the Fair Hill training center in Maryland in the fall of 2010, putting Motion in charge, and training for Team Valor, Motion has sent out 30 winners from 120 starters. Motion-trained Team Valor runners have gone 15 for 46 in stakes races and 8 for 32 in graded stakes. They have won one Kentucky Derby – the first for Team Valor and Motion – and are not without a chance a year later. Only one set of connections, those involved with Riva Ridge and Secretariat in 1972 and 1973, have won consecutive Derbies. Jockey John Velazquez was aboard Animal Kingdom last year and will ride Went the Day Well on Saturday.

“The field is tougher this year, but I really think this horse is coming into the race better than Animal Kingdom,” Irwin said.

There are a couple of points to consider concerning Irwin’s demeanor. Team Valor is in the business of putting together ownership partnerships. Irwin is the engine of their product. His job is to trumpet his talents. It’s also true that Irwin over time has earned some right to boast. He has come up with a surprising number of truly talented horses. His foray into South African racing has no real precedent in this country, and Irwin has nabbed racing prospects from international nooks and crannies few other bloodstock hawkers tread.

Still, what Motion says of Irwin is true. Irwin, 69, speaks his mind – sometimes to a fault. One of his most inflammatory comments last year came just after Animal Kingdom won the Derby, when Irwin said he had sent his horses to Motion because he was “tired of other trainers lying to me.”

“Unless . . . you have one guy on your team that’s on your side, you’re not going to get the truth,” Irwin went on to say at a post-Derby press conference. “And I reached the point where I was fed up with it.”

One could imagine Motion internally cringing. Motion, 47, is a native of England and possesses classic English reserve. Privately, he might express frustration and anger, but in public, the inner workings of his soul come out only after a big win with a much-loved horse. In such a case, Motion is prone to tears.

“I think Barry said some things last year that even he regrets to some extent,” Motion said.

Irwin recruited Motion as a private trainer for much of 2010, but Motion, who now trains more than 100 horses at Fair Hill, resisted the offer.

“It goes without saying that if I knew I had the Kentucky Derby winner coming to me, I wouldn’t have taken six months to say yes,” Motion said. “It wasn’t necessarily about taking on greater numbers, because my numbers haven’t changed much. It was more about taking a lot of horses for one client. I haven’t had numbers to that extent for one person, and I think one is always a little cautious. It’s a little bit putting your eggs in one basket. The longer you’re in the game, the more skeptical you become. I’ve had my ins and outs with people.”

But during the Saratoga meeting in 2010, Motion brought up the proposal again.

“Just like that, he said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it,’ ” Irwin said.

“I guess I decided if Barry felt that strongly about me having the horses, I didn’t really have a whole lot to lose,” said Motion.

Given Irwin’s personality and knowledge, many assume Irwin is the sort of owner who wants a say in day-to-day training. Not true.

“Everyone thinks I’m one of the micromanagers, but that’s [not true},” Irwin said. “I don’t tell Graham what to do. I want to know what direction we’re going, how did a horse come out of a race, things like that.”

“Barry is really straightforward to train for,” said Motion. “Certainly Barry is very opinionated, but I’ve been very open to people who know what they’re talking about having opinions. I never felt like owners should be shut out from decision-making. Barry has talked me into winning some nice races, and I’d like to think it’s worked the other way. I talk to him every day, but I think people would be surprised how little time we spend on the phone.”

It’s probably Motion’s level approach to work and himself that has helped him and Irwin mesh.

“He’s the first person I’ve dealt with who seems to relish my suggestions,” said Irwin. “He wants to hear what I have to say. The biggest things is most trainers, they worry about looking like a puppet. They don’t want to be overshadowed by an owner.”

Went the Day Well (a phrase from an epitaph to English soldiers killed in World War I) has an unusual history. A son of Kentucky sire Proud Citizen, he was bred in New York by James Delaney, an Irish-born New York City restauranteur who died in the spring of 2009 before Went the Day Well was foaled. Purchased as a weanling for $15,000, the colt was shipped overseas to be broken, and he began his career last Sept. 24 in England.

“A bloodstock agent called me and told me to go watch this race at Haydock right away, and I did,” said Irwin.

Off to a troubled start, Went the Day Well had flown home in the late stages of a one-mile maiden race to finish second of 14, barely beaten. Irwin was interested.

“Three bloodstock agents tried to buy him and couldn’t get it done,” Irwin said. “Finally I went over there myself and bought him.”

Went the Day Well fetched a far higher price than he had brought at auction, and Irwin limited the number of shares sold in the horse to 10. He thought the colt’s pedigree suggested dirt and had the Triple Crown in mind over the winter, but Went the Day Well had an issue getting out of quarantine, and when finally making his U.S. debut in a Feb. 4 maiden race at Gulfstream, he finished fourth of seven.

“Typical European, he broke a step slow, and I think that really cost him,” Motion said.

Motion and Irwin still thought enough of the colt that the need to accumulate graded earnings required to make the Derby colored their plans. Motion said Went the Day Well was at the airport, ready to ship from Florida to New York for the Grade 3 Gotham stakes on March 3, when he reconsidered and ran him in a Gulfstream maiden race the same day. Went the Day Well won, but had he not captured the Grade 3 Spiral Stakes on March 24, Went the Day Well might not have made it to Louisville this week.

“Last year, Animal Kingdom needed everything to go right just to make the Derby,” Motion said. “To have it work out so perfectly again was amazing. Look, I know the chance of winning this race two years in a row, the laws of probability are against us. Having said that, I think he really belongs.”

He might, or he might not. Either way, Irwin, who has used many trainers over the years, seems to have found a long-term solution.

“I had reached the point where I was ready to quit, and Graham rejuvenated our operation,” Irwin said. “Every time I get off the phone with the guy, I think, ‘What a pleasure.’ ”