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Motion shares Kentucky Derby win with his team
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Graham Motion barely slept in the euphoric 48 hours after he sent out Animal Kingdom to win the Derby last Saturday at Churchill Downs, although when he did, his staff was there for him – as always.
With more than 110 runners in his stable, Motion has assembled a large cast of employees, some of whom he credits with strong supporting roles in the Derby success of Animal Kingdom. Some have worked for Motion since he started his stable in 1993, well before he and his wife, Anita, started a family, which now includes their 14-year-old daughter, Jane, and 8-year-old son, Marcus, known better as Chappy.
Anita Motion said she and Graham consider some of the employees to be just like family, including assistants Adrian Rolls and Dave Rock and hotwalker Eliseo Ochoa, who have been with them from the beginning.
Family means everything to the Motions. Despite training and racing horses at various places, Graham, 46, designs his work schedule to maximize his time in Fair Hill, Md., where he has his primary training base and where the family lives. Motion said he was especially happy his niece Elizabeth attended the Derby with him and Anita and their two children. Elizabeth Motion is a student at Sewanee University in Tennessee.
“Elizabeth is Graham’s younger brother’s daughter, and her mother died of breast cancer in 2004, when Graham had his best year ever,” Anita Motion said, pointing out that breast cancer awareness was a major theme on Kentucky Oaks Day. “To have her with us on Kentucky Oaks, then to win the Derby and have the next day be Mother’s Day . . . it was a very special weekend for all of us. Very moving.”
Graham Motion values more than just wins, earnings, trophies, and acclaim. The loyalty and pride that reciprocates between him and his staff is evident, with the reward being their shared places in Kentucky Derby history.
As with any major endeavor, it took several people to get Animal Kingdom to the winner’s circle. Besides Barry Irwin, who manages the Team Valor International partnership that gave Motion the colt to train over the winter, and jockey John Velazquez, other key players included Dr. Sarah Barr and Dr. Foster Northrup, who tended to Animal Kingdom’s veterinary care, and Bernie Walters, the colt’s farrier.
A brief look at other Motion employees basking in the Derby afterglow:
Dave Rock, assistant trainer: Rock, 43, left Cullybackey, Northern Ireland, in 1988 to pursue a career in racing in North America, beginning with a three-year stint in Canada under trainer Mike Doyle, “my main man,” Rock said. After working for Roger Attfield, Rock began his tenure under Motion in 1993 and has been there ever since.
Rock said he prefers behind-the-scenes work on the backstretch as opposed to attending the races on the frontside.
“I just like the horses,” said Rock, who was at the Palm Meadows training center in Florida with Animal Kingdom this winter and continued on to Keeneland, then Churchill. “I wasn’t going to go over to the grandstand for the Derby, but Graham said, ‘You’ve got to go.’ I guess it’s a good thing I went.”
Rock and several other Motion employees watched the Derby from ground level near the sixteenth pole.
“It was pretty much the exact spot where the horse took the lead, and I thought, ‘Well, he’ll just go on now,’ ” Rock said. “The horse has got gears, acts like he’s not going to stop. It was a very exciting moment.”
Rock said he always believed Animal Kingdom was a horse “that just does everything right, but I don’t think you can get too high on horses. There are enough letdowns. I’m just happy this horse came through for us.”
Adrian Rolls, assistant trainer: Born and raised in England’s horse country between Berkshire and Oxfordshire, Rolls, 46, helps hold down the fort by overseeing the operation at the Fair Hill training center, whether Motion is there or traveling to oversee his other horses.
Rolls began working with horses at 11 and attended the Jockey Apprentice School in Goodwood before becoming a steeplechase jockey, working and riding for the legendary Jonathan Sheppard. Rolls’s tenure with Motion began when Motion was still an assistant to the late Bernie Bond in Maryland and continued through to when Motion took over the stable after Bond retired.
Heather Craig, assistant trainer: Craig was on hand during Derby time and stayed behind with an eight-horse string Motion will race this spring at Churchill. A 24-year-old native of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., she began working with horses at a young age and graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute last May. She worked extensively for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott before going to work for Motion nearly three years ago.
Porfirio Fernandez, groom: After working for nine years for trainer Mike Hernandez on the New York circuit, Fernandez, 36, joined Motion three years ago and has become a top employee. He is entrusted with the hands-on care of Animal Kingdom.
“He is crazy in his stall,” Fernandez said, grinning. “But he is classy. I love him.”
Fernandez is from Zamora, Michoacan, Mexico.
David Nava, exercise rider: Nava has been riding Animal Kingdom in the mornings since the colt shipped to Kentucky before his victory in the March 26 Vinery Spiral at Turfway Park. Before that, a variety of exercise riders got on the colt at Palm Meadows.
“He was a little goofy when I first rode him,” said Nava, a 27-year-old native of Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico. “But he had the strength. When he got here to Churchill, he was very good.”
Nava, who came to the United States seven years ago, previously worked for trainers Dale Romans and Maria Pascual.
Eliseo Ochoa, hotwalker: Ochoa, a 62-year-old employee since Motion opened his stable in 1993, formerly worked as a groom, but with the infirmities of his age, he now mostly walks horses on the shed row, including Animal Kingdom.
Ochoa, according to Anita Motion, reveled in the Derby victory as much as anyone.
“He is a very emotional person,” she said.
John Panagot, stable agent: Panagot is a whiz kid of sorts when it comes to the nuances of sorting out condition books and deciphering past performances and anything else that might fall under the broad category of racing and handicapping. He assists Motion in looking after the myriad details that go into spotting, shipping, and racing horses at various tracks along the Eastern seaboard and elsewhere.
“Graham and I go through every horse, what they’re eligible for, where they need to race, and run through all the possibilities,” Panagot said. “In an operation as big as Graham’s, there’s a lot to look after.”
A 25-year-old native of Oyster Bay, N.Y., Panagot initially got into racing as a fan and handicapper who makes his own speed figures. He graduated college in 2008 and came to work for Motion in his current capacity nearly two years ago.
Sue Kenny, office manager: Considering all the billing and payroll and other administrative details that go along with managing 100-plus horses, Kenny has been an invaluable part of the Motion enterprise since September 2002. She grew up in the horse capital of Newmarket, England, show-jumping and steeplechasing as a youth and riding a few amateur races on the flat. She came to the U.S. in 1992 to work under Jonathan Sheppard and traveled extensively before settling in Maryland in 1997.