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Motion finds success as trainer and family man
FAIR HILL, Md. – At Graham Motion’s office on an early December morning, the memory of his latest Breeders’ Cup win took the form of rolled up floor mats. Two of his assistants were on vacation, and, pulled in several directions by a group of visitors and the normal madness of two barns of top horseflesh, Motion had forgotten to let out the dogs. When his wife, Anita, arrived around 9, she found that Bentley, their playful terror of a black Labrador puppy, couldn’t wait any longer. The mats were soaked.
Motion apologized, but it was kind of his fault that the puppy had become a part of the family in the first place.
“I told my kids I’d get them a puppy if I ever won another Breeders’ Cup,” said Motion, who won the 2004 Turf with Better Talk Now. “I wasn’t really serious. I didn’t think I’d win another Breeders’ Cup.”
But he did, and the day after Motion’s Shared Account won the $2 million Filly and Mare Turf, his older sister left Bentley, the last of the litter, at the Motions’ house since she had nobody to watch him. When they arrived home, Jane, 14, and Marcus, 7, were ecstatic. Their father, they thought, had fulfilled his promise.
“The kids saw him and thought it was theirs,” Anita said.
“I was too emotionally drained to say no,” Graham said with a smile.
Motion, 46, a native of Cambridge, England, sat at his desk in the front office of his barn at the 350-acre Fair Hill training center in northeast Maryland near the border with Pennsylvania and Delaware. Outside, temperatures had plummeted into the 20s, and the knowledge that winter had arrived rushed across the windswept landscape to trainers and exercise riders and grooms.
Winters are remorseless here. Before finding refuge inside, Motion had walked about a mile to the track to watch his horses; halfway along the deep dirt trail, he turned, smiling, and with tears sliding down his face said, “You can see the allure of Palm Meadows.”
Until last winter, Motion and his family had shuttled to Florida with part of the stable. With their house five minutes from the training center, Graham and Anita decided to stay put to relieve the stress of changing schools on their children.
Motion began renting stalls here almost a decade ago and purchased this barn in 2004. It’s not surprising to find him out here; in his manner and method, Motion marches to his own drumbeat.
On the wall behind him, there was a white board-cum-calendar, chronicling the daily engagements of his stable. Among all trainers, Motion finished the year ranked 16th with earnings of almost $5.3 million. December is slow; in the summer Motion had almost 140 horses in training, but there were now 46 at the main barn, 20 in rented stalls at a neighboring barn, and 35 at Palm Meadows in Florida. On the calendar, Jane had written messages to her father: “I Love U Daddy,” “Bring Home the Bacon,” “#1 Trainer,” “Go Shared Account.”
Motion is a family man, humble, gracious, and a good listener; an interview often turns into a conversation among equals. But below his imperturbable demeanor burns a sentimental side one cannot miss on a visit to Fair Hill.
“I’m always very emotional,” Motion said, but even more so than usual after Shared Account’s neck victory over Midday in the Filly and Mare Turf, a race Motion had come so close in with Film Maker, second in 2004 and 2006 and third in 2005. Adding to the race’s significance was Edgar Prado’s ride, which made the difference. “It meant a lot to me to win with Edgar,” Motion said.
Prado, a 43-year-old Hall of Famer, hadn’t won a Breeders’ Cup race since 2006, and he had suffered through a disappointing year given his lofty career; his earnings were the lowest since 1996. Motion and Prado came up together in Maryland racing in the 1990s, and even Motion had trouble securing his services then. The first thing Prado said to him after the race was, “Thanks for still believing in me.”
People who know Motion weren’t surprised to see him this way. One of the owners of Better Talk Now, Brent Johnson, said that in the final stage of Better Talk Now’s career every race grew more special for Motion, as it might be the horse’s last. At 10, Better Talk Now retired in 2009 after 51 starts, winning 5 of his 24 Grade or Group 1 starts, with earnings of $4,356,664.
“Graham is sentimental,” Johnson said. “He’d tear up about every time the horse ran his last two years.”
The Breeders’ Cup was only the beginning of Motion’s storybook month. His slow start to the year – before the last weekend in May he had won two stakes – gave way to a banner finish.
The next week, Barry Irwin of Team Valor decided to transfer all of the partnership’s horses to Motion, including Pluck, the winner of this year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf who had raced for leading trainer Todd Pletcher. Motion had been one of several trainers Team Valor employed. The following week, Motion’s Aruna won the Grade 2 Mrs. Revere Stakes at Churchill Downs, and, one week later, he sent out Team Valor’s Gypsy’s Warning to victory in the Grade 1 Matriarch at Hollywood Park.
These were firsts for Motion: two Grade 1 wins in a month and, with Check the Label’s Garden City win in September, three in a year. Nine graded stakes in a year was also a first, as was Pluck. “I’ve never had anybody lead a Breeders’ Cup horse over to me after it won,” he said.
All of Motion’s best female grass runners will return in 2011: Shared Account, Gypsy’s Warning, Aruna, Check the Label, Silver Reunion. Even though he refuses to look far ahead, this coming year could raise his national profile to a new level.
If the spotlight casts its glare on Motion, what people will find is that his success has not come at a price. Within an American Thoroughbred industry that grapples with its drug problem, Motion’s record is clear. Among the top 20 trainers by purses won, only two – Christophe Clement and Motion – have never been cited for a medication violation. For Motion, that’s nearly 8,000 career starts.
“Obviously, it’s a list I was happy to be on the bottom of,” Motion said in his mild English accent. His voice cracked as he continued. “It’s something I feel very strongly about and it’s something that we’re extremely careful about.
“In the day-in, day-out operation of an outfit you have to use medication,” Motion said. “There’s times when you use medication that it’s just a matter of being so stringent about how far out you use them. . . . If somebody says you can’t use this medication three days out, we don’t use it five, six days out.”
Motion’s concern is not with the use of medication for therapeutic reasons, as he admits is necessary, but a culture of overuse and dependence that has formed within American racing.
“I have a problem with people saying that we need all these medications,” he said. “I don’t see why we need them really. Everybody gets by in other countries without them and racing goes on.”
At Fair Hill you can see why Motion thinks this way. He has the resources to return horses to nature. He is a kind of horseman’s trainer, much like his mentor Jonathan Sheppard, for whom he worked between 1985 and 1990 at Sheppard’s Pennsylvania farm. Everything here is designed to get horses to relax, physically but also mentally, which explains Motion’s success with turf horses.
Like clockwork, every horse is turned out for 30 minutes before training. Motion picked this up from Sheppard, who had learned about its use by legendary steeplechase trainer Mikey Smithwick. Motion has two large paddocks in front of his barn and several smaller rings. That morning, Check the Label and Shared Account grazed in side-by-side paddocks. More paddocks can be found in the back. Horses leave the barn in sets that last 45 minutes; after being turned out, most horses exercise around Fair Hill’s one-mile dirt track or seven-eighths of a mile Tapeta inner track. The time constraints posed by being stabled at a racetrack are largely nonexistent here.
Motion also uses nearby fields and trails to ease horses back into training or soothe the difficult ones. He recently had built a covered horse walker, shaped like a carousel; it holds eight stalls and its walking surface is made of dark rubber. All of these practices would be impossible for Motion were he confined to one track.
Motion’s approach, rather European in style, attracted Barry Irwin. Irwin is buying a barn near Motion’s, set back in the woods with several paddocks as if it were its own community. Thirty horses will move in by April 1, with the chance to spend much of their day outside their stalls.
“I’ve wanted to do something [at a training center] since the early 1990s,” Irwin said. But he couldn’t find a trainer who would pass up the camaraderie of the racetrack. “Being isolated in the middle of nowhere is not attractive, socially.”
Motion was already in the middle of nowhere. He would rather live with his family in the country than in or near a city. He moved here after he had outgrown the racetrack clamor. Almost every day a van sits outside Motion’s barn, ready to ship horses off to the races. Motion usually stays behind.
“I never thought I’d hear myself say this,” he said. “I enjoy managing the barn. I enjoy being around the horses. Being on the road two hours there and back is not something I want to do as much any more.” He has trusted assistants, he can watch the races on television, and he can spend an hour composing his set list for the next day. “I want to be home when my kids get home.”
Once the horses leave Fair Hill, Motion believes, his work has already been done. Currently, he has 75 employees between here and Florida and 50 owners. Anita handles the business end, and she employs two assistants. Motion recently hired someone to help make his entries; he had reached a point where he juggled six condition books at once.
This situation didn’t happen overnight. Motion’s pedigree destined him for this, but success wasn’t guaranteed; he has ruggedly pursued the trainer’s life.
Motion grew up at Herringswell Manor Stud, a boarding farm 10 minutes from Newmarket operated by his parents, Michael and Jo. He has two sisters and a younger brother. Michael, 80, was an international bloodstock agent and Tattersalls’ North American representative. Jo, 79, had been an amateur steeplechase rider in England and spent time in America in the 1950s as an assistant trainer, at the time of the few women on the racetrack.
Horse racing fascinated Motion. He idolized jockeys, wanted to be one. He met Steve Cauthen at Newmarket and had him sign Pete Axthelm’s biography of Cauthen. During the sales at Newmarket, Americans would stay with the Motions. Motion’s first stateside trips were to Saratoga for the Fasig-Tipton sales, where he would sit in the front row and tape the American auctioneers. They sounded so different than anything the English boy had heard.
The family moved to upstate New York in 1980. The New York-bred program had begun, and Motion’s father had been tasked to set up a stud farm. Motion, then 16, attended the Kent School in Connecticut. His parents neither held him back nor pushed him into racing. “I think they always felt that was going to be a tough way to make a living,” he said.
But he didn’t think about anything else. He graduated high school in 1983 and left for a stud farm in France the next year. Motion grew bored with that work and desired to get into training. His father set him up with Sheppard, whom Michael Motion had known from his work as a bloodstock agent.
“I think my parents’ thought process was, ‘Either it’s going to put him off for life, or he’ll find out if he really wants to do it.’ ” he said. “Working on a farm in Pennsylvania in the dead of winter kind of makes or breaks you.”
An inexperienced rider, Motion could only gallop one horse his first winter, a big gray allowance jumper named Killing Frost. Motion learned how to ride and loved it.
“It was kind of a childhood fantasy, I guess, working in racing,” he said. “I’d wanted to be a jockey, so here I was now, I was riding racehorses. I probably couldn’t have done it anywhere else. I probably couldn’t just have learned to ride on the track.”
It was hard work, up at 6 and done at 6, and everybody shared in the tasks. Motion was a “responsible young man,” Sheppard said, and he would care for four-time steeplechase champion Flatterer; they traveled all over the country and twice to Europe. Flatterer finished second in the 1987 Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham and the 1988 French Champion Hurdle.
Motion lived with Sheppard’s family in a guest room. Just being around the legendary trainer was an education, he said.
“Jonathan is a workaholic,” Motion said. “There probably wasn’t a moment in the day that he wasn’t doing something that didn’t involve running a stable. Jonathan didn’t come home at night and sit down and watch TV. He came home at night and did his bookwork.”
Ultimately, Sheppard encouraged Motion to work for a racetrack stable, something Sheppard regretted he had never done.
“One fall I sent him up to the Meadowlands to take care of a small group of horses,” Sheppard said. “I think it was a culture shock for him because he had really only been exposed to the farm and these steeplechase meets.
“I thought he should get down in the trenches in the winter at Bowie or something like that,” standing horses in ice and knee bandages and whirlpools, figuring out how to keep old horses sound, Sheppard added.
In 1990, Motion went to France for a year to work with trainer Jonathan Pease. There he met his wife, also from England, who was working for Alain de Royer-Dupre. Motion returned in 1991 and followed Sheppard’s advice. Before long, Bernie Bond, a gruff old Maryland trainer known for his aptitude with young horses, was looking for an assistant.
“I walked into the Pimlico grandstand,” Motion said, “and Bernie and Charlie Hadry are sitting in the pitch dark watching horses train. I mean you couldn’t see a thing.” Bond told him to go to the barn and get started.
Bond didn’t have the horses he once had, and his health declined quickly. He basically let Motion take over. Bond retired in January 1993 and died within two weeks. His owners looked elsewhere, except for the elder couple Skip and Gertrude Leviton; they rallied the other owners to stay with Motion, then 29.
“I owe it to them,” said Motion, who began with seven or eight horses. Skip Leviton paid him two months training fees up front because he knew Motion didn’t have the money. “They stayed in it long enough for me to get started.”
It was an amazing stroke of luck, one which Motion made the most of. “He’s a pretty quiet, retiring type of person,” Sheppard said of Motion, and he wasn’t sure how he would handle it. But, Sheppard said, “there was something ticking down inside of there once he got thrown into the deep end.”
Motion’s first stalls were inside Laurel’s metal quarantine barn, shot through with concrete floors. Graham and Anita weren’t yet married and shared one car; Anita would often muck stalls at the barn before going to another riding job. With longtime assistant Adrian Rolls, they handled every task.
That first year Motion won 21 races, including his first stakes and graded stakes with the Levitons’ Gala Spinaway. Soon enough, Motion picked up more horses, and they grew into other quarantine barns in this little quarantine village. He began training Lazy Lane Farm’s second string, the first of many premier owners, among others, Pin Oak Stud, Augustin Stable, Flaxman Holdings, Live Oak Plantation, Brereton C. Jones, and Earle Mack.
In 2001, Motion won Monmouth’s Iselin, his first Grade 2, with Broken Vow. In 2003, Film Maker gave him his first Grade 1 with Keeneland’s Queen Elizabeth II Cup. Then Better Talk Now sprung the latch on Motion’s career.
Two years after they started Bushwood Stable in 1999, longtime friends Brent Johnson and Karl Barth asked Motion to train for them. The next spring, they privately purchased Better Talk Now, then 3, for $150,000. Unruly and for several years almost impossible to ride, they gelded him after that season.
His rider, Ramon Dominguez, established an incredible rapport with the horse, and the addition of extension blinkers as well as a change in tactics – Bushwood purchased Shake the Bank to serve as the rabbit in his races – elevated Better Talk Now to Grade 1 status for six years.
At 5, he won the Sword Dancer and the Breeders’ Cup Turf; at 6, he won the Man o’ War and United Nations; at 7, he finished second in the BC Turf; at 8, he won the Manhattan; and at 9 and 10 he finished second in the Sword Dancer. He nearly became the oldest horse to win a Grade 1. His five Breeders’ Cup starts tied a record and his career earnings on turf trail only John Henry among North American-based horses.
Motion grew philosophical thinking about Better Talk Now.
“It goes beyond the fact of what the horse achieved, but the places he took us, the friendships we amassed from having him,” he said. “It’s pretty unique, and it’s something that will affect us the rest of our lives.”
Motion’s attachment to Better Talk Now won’t subside anytime soon. He still resides in a stall at Fair Hill; they weren’t going to give him away. Around 10 that December morning, he was led back to the barn after spending two hours in one of the rear paddocks. With him was an even older gray: Gala Spinaway, now 22. Motion had tracked him down at a farm in Vermont. “These are my foundation horses,” he said as they walked slowly past.
It’s premature to say, but Pluck appears to have the talent to add a new leg to that foundation. His Breeders’ Cup win was memorable – he stumbled at the start, then avoided a fallen horse, trailed the field by a dozen lengths, closed from the clouds, and still won in hand. Irwin wants to run him in the Irish 2000 Guineas in May, an idea Motion immediately embraced.
Motion walked alongside Pluck to one of the fields near his barn. The dark bay colt looked sharp, on his toes; he had only returned to light training. He is expected to race twice before the Guineas. The field undulated, and the grass was already yellow and light green, bleak reminders of the cold winter ahead. Motion instructed the exercise rider to jog Pluck a mile around an oval they’ve carved out over the years.
At the other end of the training center from where Motion stood, there is a turf course used for Fair Hill’s one day of springtime jump races, a 76-year-old tradition. It is generally open for training for a small fee. The last time Motion used it was 2004. Better Talk Now and Film Maker breezed together in their final workout before the Breeders’ Cup, a day that forever shaped Motion’s career.
Standing in the field, Motion grew reflective when asked about this, and he allowed himself the moment to look into the future. Maybe, he reasoned, I’ll bring Pluck over there for his final workout before we leave for Ireland.