Can Animal Kingdom win Preakness? (cont.)
And it was written all over Motion's face when he walked from the barn area into his small office late Wednesday morning. His tireless office manager, Sue Kenny, was sitting there, along with Motion's three purebred Labs (one of which would positively not give up his seat for me to interview Motion). This year I had first talked to Motion eight days before the Derby on the backstretch at Churchill Downs. He's a young-looking 46, and he was more than happy to chat for half an hour about himself, his work and his two Derby prospects (not only Animal Kingdom, but Wood Memorial winner Toby's Corner, who was the alpha colt until he came up lame on Monday of Derby week and pulled out of the race).
Now, Motion looks whipped, a much older 46. Bags under the eyes. Bed head. (OK, the guy works training horses in a barn, a job that might get you dirty, but still. ...) He flopped down behind his desk.
"This is overwhelming," Motion said. "And I don't know how anybody could possibly prepare you for it."
Much to Motion's credit, he has tried to not turn down a single interview request, even from the smallest radio station whose hosts probably don't know what state hosts the Kentucky Derby.
"These are racing's two weeks, aren't they?" says Motion. "I feel like I should do my part in that."
As we talked, Motion would occasionally stare off at the walls of his office before coming back to the conversation. At times, I didn't know whether to ask a follow-up or toss the guy a pillow. (Still, he was great on every subject we discussed.)
Racing media has seen this before. In 2003, a gelding named Funny Cide won the Derby and his trainer, Barclay Tagg, subsequently turned his normal crankiness up to full-on grouch.
"This is exhausting,'' Tagg said to a Sports Illustrated fact-checker on the day after the race. By the time Tagg reached the Belmont, he was tearing heads off at the slightest provocation.
On the other hand, a guy like Bob Baffert, who has won three Derbies (and three times went to New York with a shot at the Triple Crown), was born to carry the sport. Every interview for Baffert is like he was sitting in the bar alone and a bunch of people showed up to talk. Sometimes he slips and says something entertaining. D. Wayne Lukas is the same way.
In 2008, highly suspect (and frequently suspended) trainer Rick Dutrow (Big Brown) transformed himself from rogue to villain in only two weeks. A year later, Chip Woolley (Mine That Bird) took his crutches to the rostrum every morning at Pimlico. He would lay the drawl on a little thicker and drop the cowboy hat a little lower, and by Friday you thought he was going to pull out a six-shooter and start picking cans off the fence.
Sudden celebrity (of a kind) and attention are utterly transformative. (Thinking back: John Shirreffs brought Giacomo here after winning the Derby in '05 and did not change in the least, which was great practice for handling Zenyatta.) Motion is in the middle of that. The machine is taking chunks out of him, but he's not fighting it.
But Motion isn't running the race. Animal Kingdom is running the race and while Motion carries the sport for the media (with plenty of help from Irwin), Animal Kingdom is being a horse.
From a handicapping perspective, he looks like a very good horse. He was resoundingly the best in the Derby, and Motion says the race seemed to take little out of him. Of course, even Motion won't know that for sure until Animal Kingdom breaks from the gate in the Preakness. Yet Baffert, who has won the Derby and Preakness back-to-back more times than any trainer (and never won the Triple Crown), lives by this rule: "A horse that wins the Derby -- he's peaking. [The Preakness] is the easy leg, if you've got a horse like that."
Animal Kingdom has run just five races in his life and just three as a three-year-old. Motion's decision (against Irwin's instincts) not to run him in the Blue Grass Stakes, after winning the March 26 Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park, now works in Animal Kingdom's favor. He should not be a tired horse. His breeding veers from current U.S. favor, where the most important characteristics are speed, speed, and finally, speed. Dalicia, Animal Kingdom's German-bred dam, ran 18 of 21 racers at distances of at least 1 1/4 miles, and hit the board nine times.
Animal Kingdom is not facing a stellar field, but there are some dangerous foes. Dialed In, who will be running for a $5.5 million bonus (but, it must be said, knows nothing about it), was lightly trained leading into the Derby and could benefit from a faster pace in the Preakness, which is likely. Dance City was a respectable third in the strong Arkansas Derby and comes in with five weeks' rest. Either could win if Animal Kingdom is dulled by his Derby.
But he doesn't looked dulled. He looks robust and prime to repeat his Churchill run. It's been 33 years since Affirmed won the Triple Crown and in that time, 11 horses have come to Belmont with two wins and failed to collect the third. Animal Kingdom should become the 12th to try.
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