Jockey John Velazquez, aboard Animal Kingdom, celebrates… (Reuters photo )
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Minutes after 20-1 long shot Animal Kingdom stunned a record Churchill Downs crowd of 164,858 by winning the 137th running of the Kentucky Derby Saturday, a reporter asked Barry Irwin, one of the horse's owners, why he put Maryland trainer Graham Motion in charge of his large stable of thoroughbreds last year.
"I just was tired of other trainers lying to me," Irwin said. "I wanted a guy who would tell me the truth."
Irwin certainly got that in Motion — who was born in Cambridge, England, but has trained horses in the state since the early 1990s — but he also got plenty more. The Englishman isn't just a straight shooter, he is also a heck of a trainer, and he proved it Saturday on the sport's biggest stage with an improbable victory.
Motion is the first Maryland-based trainer to win the Derby since Michael Matz won with Barbaro (2006). Motion said this morning that Animal Kingdom would run in the Preakness on May 21, assuming he's healthy.
Motion is based at Fair Hill in Elkton (Cecil County), about 45 miles north of Baltimore. Horses stabled there often run at Delaware Park and the Maryland tracks. The name of Motion's stables at Fair Hill, Herringswell, is a nod to Newmarket's Herringswell Manor Stud operated by his parents Michael and Jo in England.
Animal Kingdom laid off the pace for much of the race, but he flew past the pack down the stretch to win by 2 3/4 lengths.
"It's hard to find one guy that can train every kind of horse, but I think Graham comes pretty darn close," Irwin said.
Animal Kingdom, who got a great ride from jockey Johnny Velazquez, paid $43.80 for the victory. Nehro, who briefly had the lead in the stretch before getting caught, finished second and paid $8.80. Mucho Macho Man charged late to finish third and paid $7.00. The trifecta was worth $3,952.
Animal Kingdom wasn't even regarded as Motion's best horse in the week leading up to the Derby. That honor went to Toby's Corner, who won the prestigious Wood Memorial during the Derby prep season. But Toby's Corner was injured right before Motion was about to leave Maryland for Kentucky, a turn of events that, at least at the time, seemed totally deflating. Animal Kingdom was a good horse, but his Derby chances were hardly promising. He'd never run a race on dirt before in his life.
"It really has been an extraordinary week," said Motion, who has lived in the United States since 1980, and spent much of his childhood in Maryland. "I felt really good about running both these horses. I worked Toby's Corner on Sunday, and he was the last of three horses that I was running [at Churchill Downs] and I felt probably about as good as I've felt for a long time about anything."
When Motion walked into the barn the next day to get Toby's Corner and Animal Kingdom ready to depart, fellow trainer David Grening pulled him aside to tell him the bad news.
"He said 'This horse, he's not right,' " Motion said. "I about fell over. It was an odd conversation for me to get on the plane on Tuesday, to come here with what I felt was a very light horse in the Derby but still have a sense of disappointment."
Motion's luck didn't look like it was improving when he got to Kentucky. Animal Kingdom's primary rider, Robby Albarado, was thrown from his mount in a claiming race on Thursday and he suffered a broken nose. Albarado still felt he could ride in the Derby, but when another horse in the race, Uncle Mo, was scratched with a mysterious intestinal injury, jockey Johnny Velazquez became available.
Irwin talked it over with Motion, and though it was a difficult decision, both felt they couldn't pass up the chance to grab Velazquez, a rider who was recently named a finalist for the Racing Hall of Fame.
"When Johnny came open, we decided to go with him," Irwin said. "We didn't just dump Robby just to get to Johnny. I wouldn't do anything like that. I like Robby. He's won a lot of good races for us. He's a hell of a pro, and this thing just came up bad, and believe me, we will find a way to make this up to Robby."
Velazquez, despite the fact that he's regarded as one of the top riders in the sport, hasn't been particularly lucky himself at the Kentucky Derby in recent years. In 2009, he was slated to ride Quality Road, who likely would have been the morning line favorite, but he was scratched with an injury. In 2010, he was scheduled to ride Eskendereya, a horse who looked like the most talented runner to come along in years. But an injury shelved Eskendereya a week before the Derby. This year, it happened to Velazquez a third time when Uncle Mo, the juvenile champion, was scratched on Friday.
"It's a dream come true for all of us," Velazquez said. "I guess it was meant to be. Things happen for a reason. People said to me 'Three years in a row [you lose the best horse to an injury.] How could that happen to you?' I guess when it's meant to be for you, it's meant to be for you."