10/26/2004 11:00PM

Motion set to make a splash

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GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas - The last time Graham Motion had anything to do with Texas, it rained hard, as in Old Testament hard, with armadillos, prairie dogs, and longhorn steers lining up by twos and searching for an ark.

Motion was warm and dry in Florida at the time, while his horse, his owners and his jockey were at Sam Houston Park, dealing with a bonafide Texas gullywasher that dumped 3 1/2 inches of rain inside a couple of hours.

"I had the owner on one line," Motion said, referring to Bushwood Stables managing partner Brent Johnson, "describing how the storm knocked out the power at the track, and Rene Douglas on the other line, in his car in the parking lot, hail and lightning all around him, afraid to get out."

Better Talk Now, the brave horse in the middle, went forth that April night in the John B. Connally Handicap and, with chunks of the sodden turf flying left and right, finished sixth of 11. Motion regrouped, the horse forgave him, and four months later Better Talk Now responded by winning the prestigious Sword Dancer Handicap at Saratoga. His reward?

Back to Texas.

The weather promises to be considerably more benign Saturday, when Better Talk Now takes on the likes of Kitten's Joy, Powerscourt, and Magistretti in the $2 million Breeders' Cup Turf. The Lone Star Park grass course figures to have some give, but nothing like the swamp back in Houston.

"In hindsight it probably wasn't the smartest thing to do, especially for his first race back this year," Motion said Wednesday, his first morning at Lone Star. "It took us a little while get him back in sync. But then, when he ran second to Kicken Kris - in the Bowling Green at Belmont - that was kind of a turning-around point."

Better Talk Now will join the top-class turf filly Film Maker and the emerging 2-year-old filly Dance Away Capote to give Motion a busy day in his Breeders' Cup debut. At the age of 40, he has been running his own high-quality, Maryland-based stable for 11 years. But if one of his horses lights up the board this weekend, look for Motion's fortunes to soar.

Time, then, for a background check. Motion goes by "H. Graham," as in "H. Ross" Perot, or "H.R. Bob" Haldeman. What gives with the mystery H?

"It stands for 'honest,'" Motion said.

Very funny. Try again.

"Humperdink," he replied.

Last chance.

"Okay, Howard," he said. "But when I was young I preferred Graham. It's a family name."

Motion is a son of the noted international bloodstock agent Michael Motion. His mother, Jo, is steeped in horses, as well, with a resume that includes both riding and training in their native England and their adopted America.

At 20, with precious little practical experience, young Graham apprenticed himself to Jonathan Sheppard, whose stable offered a potent mix of flat runners and jumpers. Storm Cat, the pride of W.T. Young, was among the runners, and George Strawbridge's champion Flatterer led the jumpers.

"Jonathan basically taught me everything," Motion said. "I lived and worked with him for five years. My first big job was to drive Jonathan's car every weekend to the local airport to pick up Mr. Young and his farm manager, who would fly in on the private plane to see Storm Cat."

Storm Cat, arguably the world's preeminent sire, came within a nose of winning the 1985 Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Aqueduct.

"I remember vividly sitting in Jonathan's living room watching Storm Cat that day," Motion said. "I don't think any of us realized at the time what an impact the horse could make. Except Jonathan. He knew."

Before long, Sheppard had enough faith in Motion to send him traveling with Flatterer to England for the Cheltenham Festival and to France for a major jump race in Paris.

Taking his cue from his Hall of Fame mentor, Motion tries to imbue his runners with a relaxed running style that puts a premium on strong finishes. Dance Away Capote is already learning her lessons well, and Film Maker has shown an ability to be placed anywhere her rider pleases.

Better Talk Now has been a bit more of a project, exhibiting a tendency to lean on other horses through the stretch.

"He was getting beaten narrowly in serious races because the jock couldn't ride him the last sixteenth of a mile," Motion said. "I tried everything. He runs in a full cup inside extension blinker, as well as a pretty aggressive bit. It gives the rider a little more steering control."

In the Sword Dancer at Saratoga, the student defeated the master when Better Talk Now raced past the Sheppard-trained Rochester in the final furlong. Better Talk Now leaned left and contact was made, but no action was taken.

"We went to dinner that night," Sheppard said. "If I couldn't win the race, I was happy he did. But I did complain about his horse bumping mine. Graham explained all about how he'd been dealing with that, and how he'd even scratched the horse when he drew a far outside post, because of the habit."

Sheppard, of course, accepted the explanation.

"Not really," Sheppard noted. "But I did make him pick up the check."