05/24/2011 2:39PM

Preakness day a sobering one for Motion


Three mornings after the Preakness was history, Graham Motion answered the same cell number he’s had for years after just a couple of rings. That right there, given the ferocity of recent media demands, was a telling surprise.

“Normally I wouldn’t have answered,” Motion said, speaking from his stables at Maryland‘s Fair Hill Training Center. “But I had a suspicion it was the racing office harassing us about giving up some stalls. I’ve been using the old Derby-winner excuse for a couple weeks now and I’m afraid I’m on borrowed time.”

So it goes.

The Triple Crown is a zero-sum game, particularly when it comes to the results of the Preakness. Those not aware of this bitter truth going in tend to learn quickly.

If your horse does not win the Kentucky Derby he becomes one of the generation’s legion of no-shows and also-rans, but still is given a chance to build a reputation apart from what happened on the first Saturday in May.

If your Kentucky Derby winner somehow wins the Preakness he becomes an immediate hero, and even if he does not win the Belmont Stakes (which history says he won’t anyway, so why get excited) he at least gets credit for an uptick in the commerce surrounding the prospect of a Triple Crown champion.

But if your Kentucky Derby winner does not win the Preakness, woe be unto him. He betrays the sport and renders the Belmont moot. Small children return to school red-eyed from weeping. No matter how valiant the Derby winner is in defeat at Pimlico or how well he runs afterwards, he will always be remembered as the pony who spoiled the party.

Of course, Motion does not see it this way. He looks at Animal Kingdom and beholds a relatively inexperienced young horse who came back to be unsaddled last Saturday after falling a half-length short of catching Shackleford with his black blinkers caked with kickback from the soaked sand of the Pimlico track.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Motion said. “I thought he ran a very courageous race. If it wasn’t for the fact you were going for a chance to compete for a Triple Crown you’d be absolutely thrilled with the way he ran. Obviously, though, you have a certain amount of mixed emotions and disappointment.”

Watching the Preakness telecast from Presque Isle Downs, where he was busy winning the $75,000 Ambassador of Luck Stakes on a program for Pennsylvania-breds, Jonathan Sheppard beheld the dejected reaction of his former assistant.

“He looked like his mother had died,” Sheppard said, knowing full well Jo Motion was right there at Pimlico to console her son, along with his father, the noted bloodstock agent Michael Motion.

Motion, who turned 47 on Sunday, credits the five years he worked for Sheppard in his early 20’s with the foundation upon which he has built his training career. Among his tasks was accompanying the four-time steeplechase champion Flatterer to England for a run at the fabled Cheltenham Festival. It was like trusting the young lad with the family jewels.

“I’ve been asked if I knew then what a great trainer he’d become,” Sheppard said, treading perilously close to tongue-in-cheek. “Truthfully, he was very laid-back, but I’m sure there’s a lot more fire to him than he lets on. I think, though, he’d be able to take what happened Saturday in stride a lot better than a lot of us would.”

Motion confessed to the “roller-coaster range of emotions” he rode over the past two weeks.

“It’s been an odd thing to cope with,” he said. “I don’t think anyone could even begin to explain to you what all that attention is like. It consumes your life, and at the same time it seems like it went by so quickly.”

Like such recent Derby-winning rookies as John Servis, Michael Matz, and John Shirreffs, Motion went out of his way to accommodate the media onslaught.

“Those were three weeks everyone wanted to talk about horse racing,” Motion said. “I felt that was important, especially in these times, and I was darn well going to make the most of it by doing what I could.”

In the moments following Animal Kingdom’s Preakness defeat, Motion said that the day felt strange from the beginning, because there was no way of knowing how he’d feel at the end of it, other than being fairly certain it would be either very good or very bad.

Then suddenly on Sunday life went on, and Monday as well, then Tuesday, when Animal Kingdom began to perk up and licked his feed tub clean. Motion came to realize the letdown of Saturday night was just another, albeit extreme, variation on the theme of training Thoroughbreds, bringing to mind something he’d offered in this space five years ago.

“As trainers, we’re all pretty pessimistic,” Motion said, in the wake of Barbaro‘s breakdown in the 2006 Preakness. “You end up expecting the worst things to happen. But then you’re broadsided when they actually do.”

Motion was referring not only to the tragedy surrounding Barbaro, who like Animal Kingdom trained at Fair Hill. He was tapping into the awful depths experienced the previous fall at Belmont Park when he watched in horror as Funfair, his runner in the Breeders’ Cup Mile, suffered a fatal injury barely a quarter of a mile into the race.

“The day that Funfair broke his leg, I had to go back to the barn before a race later on the card,” Motion recalled then. “And I swear to you – it was an extraordinary thought and I had to check myself – but it crossed my mind that I wanted to just drive out of the gate and not come back.”

Let the record show that the beaten favorite in the 2005 Breeders’ Cup Mile was Leroidesanimaux, the sire of Animal Kingdom, and that Motion, thank goodness, came back.