Motion's career took fortuitous turns on way to Preakness

English-born trainer explored other facets of the horse racing business while developing the patience for his craft

May 19, 2011|By Kevin Van Valkenburg, The Baltimore Sun

No matter how hard you work, or how brilliant you may be, the art of training thoroughbred race horses often comes down to the simple matter of fate.

Graham Motion probably understands this better than most. In fact, he's thought about it a lot recently, especially during the past two weeks, ever since his life was turned into a state of beautiful chaos when he won the Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom.

On Saturday, Motion, 47, will live out a fantasy that is nearly 20 years in the making. He'll bring the Kentucky Derby winner to Pimlico Race Track, where his horse will likely be favored to win the 136th running of the Preakness. But in many ways, Motion's journey to Pimlico will have covered far more ground than just the 61 miles he will travel to Baltimore from his barn at Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, Maryland. The story of his life and his career is very much a story about fate, about the chances he took, and opportunities both won and lost along the way.

"I supposed it's life changing because it's what you're going to be remembered for," said Motion. "We all wanted to be remember for something, and I'm always going to be remembered for winning the 137th Kentucky Derby. That's pretty cool, I think."

Although Motion has deep roots in Maryland — he has lived here for two decades and he and his wife, Anita, have two children, Jane, 14, and Marcus, 8, who attend school in Cecil County — his passion for horse racing was born on the other side of the Atlantic ocean, outside of Newmarket, England, where he was born and spent the majority of his childhood. Motion's parents, Michael and Jo, worked with horses for a living, both managing them and training them, and many of his fondest boyhood memories involve races around his family's farm, Herringswell Manor, on the back of a pony, chasing his brother.

"I really grew up wanting to be a jockey," Motion said. "Steve Cauthen was one of my childhood idols."

Motion's family actually lived in the United States for several years prior to his birth, and they moved back to America when he was 16 years old. He finished up his education at the Kent School in Connecticut, and then spent a year working on a stud farm in France. The experience helped him realize he had no interest in the breeding aspect of thoroughbreds, but he did think he might want to be a trainer.

His father helped him get a job with Pennsylvania trainer Jonathan Sheppard, another transplanted Englishman, who soon became Motion's mentor. He did virtually everything while working for Sheppard, from cleaning stalls to winning steeplechase races. He even worked a stint as a jockey, and actually won a small race in 1989. Although he didn't have the genetics to do it long term — Motion still moves with the casual grace of an athlete, but is nearly 6 feet tall — the experience was invaluable.

"To me, it was like one of the first things I'd accomplished that I'd always said I was going to do," Motion said of his brief jockey career. "I think it was a really good thing for me to experience as a trainer. It gives you a very different perspective."

Motion's belief, even now, is that a trainer never stops learning the craft. And that has been his philosophy almost from the beginning, which is why he decided to spend a seasonal stint in France in 1990, working at a stable owned by George Strawbridge, one of Sheppard's employers. It might have been a somewhat-forgettable experience if not for the spark of romance that was lit when Motion, out for a ride one morning, flashed a polite but flirtatious smile at a beautiful woman riding in the other direction. The woman, also a native of England, would one day agree to marry him.

"We were each in a big string of horses, close to 60 following one trainer," said Anita Motion. "I was all the way at the back of a string, and Graham was all the way at the front of another one. We just passed one another in the morning and I guess that was it. It was an instant attraction, I guess."

Early days in racing

The relationship quickly blossomed, and she and Motion both moved to Maryland so they could stay together when Motion got a job working for Bernie Bond, one of the state's premier thoroughbred trainers and a master at working with 2-year-olds. It was another invaluable experience, even though money was scarce and the days were long and exhausting, because the Motions learned what the did and did not want for their future.

"It was really the best thing I could have done," Motion said. "It was the perfect way to go back to basics."

They lived in a small apartment in Sykesville, sharing it with another assistant trainer who worked for Bond, Adrian Rolls. The Motions had one car between them, so each morning, they'd drive to the racetrack in Laurel around dawn, and Anita would clean the stalls while Motion and Rolls took horses out to work. She would head to her own job on a horse farm, and return at the end of the day to pick up her future husband.

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