`Better' tries for an encore in Cup Turf

Motion-trained gelding still seeking respect

Horse Racing


Going into today's Breeders' Cup Turf, Better Talk Now would like to repeat himself.

The 6-year-old gelding, trained by Graham Motion at the Fair Hill Training Center, was a long-shot winner of the Turf last year.

If he can pull off a victory this time, he'd become the first U.S.-based horse to win back-to-back Turf races and only the second ever, joining the Europe-based High Chaparral, who won in 2002 and 2003 (though in a dead heat).

"There is no doubt this is going to be his toughest race to date," said Brent Johnson, who owns the horse with Karl Barth and Chris Dwyer. "It's going to be a deep and solid field."

The three owners, who operate as Bushwood Stables, are giving their horse every opportunity to pull off the double, and they have a lot of incentive.

They would also like to remedy what they see as a slight. Last year, for the first time since 1996, the horse who won the Breeders' Cup Turf did not win the Eclipse Award that recognizes the best turf horse in North America.

Adding insult to injury, Better Talk Now ended up third in the voting.

"The horse doesn't know he's been disrespected," Motion said. "But we'd love to see him get the respect he deserves. Last year, he'd won the Sword Dancer Stakes at Saratoga. He had credentials, but he was a 27-1 shot and gets little respect for what he has done. He's a very confident horse, and this year he's a better horse."

Part of the reason for the improvement is the result of a bad race at Pimlico last May. While most interest was centered on the Preakness, Better Talk Now's contingent had its hands full in The Dixie, a Grade II stakes on grass.

"There was no pace or speed in the race," Motion said. "When that happens, Better Talk Now will get very strong and he'll try to run off with the rider."

Pinned behind several slow horses, Better Talk Now got antsy. It wasn't his kind of race.

"I could never get him to relax," said jockey Ramon Dominguez. "When a horse is relaxed, you loosen the reins and his head drops a little and levels off. But in a race with slow pace, he is very aggressive and he overreached with his back legs past his front with a high action."

The result was a cut over the back of his knee, which Johnson was relieved wasn't worse.

"He kicked himself pretty badly trying to get out from behind those horses," said Johnson, who grew up in Northern Virginia and fell in love with racing as a teenager on trips to Laurel Park, Pimlico and then-operating Bowie. "We decided we had to do something."

They bought Better Talk Now a rabbit.

In racing parlance, a "rabbit" is a horse whose job it is to set an honest pace. In this case, that horse is Shake the Bank, who can run the first half-mile in 47 seconds, but has held on to win three times in 26 starts.

Dominguez explains the need for a rabbit race this way:

"My horse is a closer," he said. "That means he likes to hang back and then come on fast at the finish. He doesn't have early speed. I don't know why. It's like it takes a little time to warm up.

"But ... when the pace is too slow, he won't relax because he'll be on top of the other horses."

Motion said having a rabbit is normal in Europe, but more unusual here.

"I give Better Talk Now's owners a lot of credit for taking this step," Motion said. "It's a bold move and not inexpensive."

The entry fee for each horse in the Breeders' Cup Turf is $60,000.

Since becoming Better Talk Now's rabbit, Shake the Bank has performed perfectly by setting a lively pace and allowing his stablemate to run the kind of race he likes.

In their two Grade I races together, Shake the Bank kept the pace up and finished out of the money, while Better Talk Now closed down the stretch for victories in both the United Nations Stakes in Chicago and in the $500,000 Man O' War Handicap at Belmont Park. His take-home pay totaled $750,000, bringing his career earnings to just more than $2.6 million.

Now, Better Talk Now will take aim at the $2 million Breeders' Cup Turf. Shake the Bank will be there, too. Dominguez said that's a comfort, but not a necessity.

"The Breeders' Cup has good-quality horses," Dominguez said. "Very likely that means a little more pace. There will be a couple very tough horses in the race. But he definitely has a good chance to get the job done.

"You know, he definitely is not a pretty horse. He's not flashy. He's very simple. Thinner than others and not one you would pick out and say, `Oh, he's the one.' But what he has is a big heart. He tries so hard. And that's what counts."


Breeders' Cup Today, Belmont Park, Elmont, N.Y. TV: Chs. 11, 4 (1-6 p.m.)

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