Englishman abroad Graham Motion won the world’s richest race with Animal Kingdom; now he’s back in his homeland to fulfil a lifelong dream
You left these shores for America aged 16. What does it mean to you, coming back to Britain and saddling one of the best horses in the world at Royal Ascot?
It has always been something on my ‘bucket list’ to come back to Europe with a top horse, and what better place than Royal Ascot? It certainly means a lot to me as an Englishman, perhaps more than it would otherwise. I don’t remember going to Royal Ascot as a kid, but I certainly watched it on television. Before, when I have considered the possibility of going to England, I have never been quite sure I had the horse to do the job. But Animal Kingdom has the right credentials.
Can you explain why it meant so much to you and the racing industry that Animal Kingdom was able to win a Dubai World Cup without medication?
First of all I think it was extremely important for America to have a horse win the World Cup, because we have struggled over the last few years. The Americans needed a horse to go to Dubai and run well to give them the confidence to continue pursuing their quest; people were getting very down because it was so hard to compete successfully in the World Cup.
However, it must be said we had been taking the wrong horses for the World Cup, as it is a completely different ball game from when we were going over and winning on the dirt. Now you need a turf horse to handle the Meydan Tapeta; not all dirt horses handle it. As far as the medication is concerned, I think it’s reassuring that we have an American horse that can be so competitive on the international stage without medication.
Animal Kingdom’s two biggest wins – the Kentucky Derby and World Cup – have been over a mile and a quarter. So why are you dropping him back to a mile at Royal Ascot?
First of all, I thought he ran really well in the Breeders’ Cup Mile (second to Wise Dan) and that’s a pretty sharp mile. He is a very adaptable horse, but, having walked the Ascot course, I could see for myself that it is a tough old slog from Swinley Bottom on the round course. It is a very different mile and a quarter to what he’d be used to in the States, plus, he is also going to be galloping right-handed. So I think he will run in the Queen Anne Stakes over the straight course, which is certainly a stiff mile, but should be within his capabilities. I think we would be throwing more at him in the Prince of Wales than in the Queen Anne.
Whatever we do, it is going to be very different to anything he has experienced before, but that’s all part of the challenge. If he was to win over the Ascot mile, having already proved himself over a mile and a quarter, it would be tremendous for his stud career.
John Velazquez will ride at Ascot and that’s no slight on Joel Rosario. The Queen Anne is the first race of the meeting and Barry Irwin [of Team Valor] said it would be unfair to ask Joel to ride him without a practice run over a straight mile, which would be totally new to horse and jockey. John is one of the world’s top riders, has ridden winners at Ascot and knows the horse.
Why did you choose David Lanigan’s Kingsdown stables at Lambourn for Animal Kingdom’s UK base?
I train horses for the Niarchos family and their racing manager, Alan Cooper, suggested I talked to David, who also trains for them. I am extremely glad I made the decision to go to Lambourn because David and his stable have been very accommodating.
I found the idea of lodging at Newmarket quite daunting. The biggest undertaking is changing his training regime and the prospect of Animal Kingdom showing up in the middle of Newmarket on a busy morning might have been a little bit unnerving. I like the fact that David has some semi-private gallops and we can work with his horses and get Animal Kingdom into a routine in slightly more secluded and controlled surroundings.
Is Animal Kingdom as effective on turf as he is on dirt or synthetic surfaces?
I think he is as effective, perhaps even more effective. I think he won the Kentucky Derby despite the surface. I don’t think dirt is necessarily his preferred surface. He handles it, but for me he is really more of a natural grass-type horse. He has such talent that he can take to the surface anywhere; you don’t need to make excuses for the ground. The thing that helps him most is his disposition; he has a remarkably good way of handling situations. It was one of the factors that helped him win the Derby. It is like a fishbowl on Derby day at Churchill Downs, with 150,000 people there and the horses in this tiny area. When they come out of the paddock it is important that you have a horse that can handle all the pressures that go with the day. If they can’t take it mentally you’ve had it. Animal Kingdom has never changed, always taken everything in his stride, and I think that’s one of his biggest attributes, apart from his extraordinary ability.
Having won two of the biggest races in the world for Team Valor, how disappointed were you when they removed all their horses from your care, apart from Animal Kingdom?
This was something I chose to walk away from. Team Valor purchased a separate barn here at Fair Hill, and I had my own barn. I ran their horses from their barn and when it came down to this situation of them wanting a private trainer, I was not prepared to go along with it. I didn’t want it to affect my other owners and how I trained their horses. I had always told Barry [Irwin] that going private was not something I wanted to do.
I’m very proud of what we achieved. The first year we were training their horses, Barry came within a few votes of winning the Eclipse Award for leading owner. For me, it was very rewarding to get an owner to that level of national recognition. We had a great run with this amazing horse for three years. I have no regrets.
You’ve told this magazine before you enjoy the challenge of international racing. Won’t that be so much more difficult without Team Valor’s backing?
I think there is a chance the opportunities might not be so great. The international and sporting outlook of Barry and Team Valor is something I have always admired. At times I think we are all guilty of getting too caught up in trying to find the easier races for our horses. I like the idea that Barry is prepared to take on a challenge and that is the sporting side of his operation. Ultimately that’s why we all got into the business. I’ll miss it but I’d like to think I’ll have another opportunity to do it all again. After all, these amazing experiences with Animal Kingdom should help me to identify the horses most suited to international campaigns.
We get very few US-trained horses running in Britain. Is that to do with poor prize-money, running on turf, the medication situation or something else?
It comes down to the prize-money. It is very hard to justify flying a horse to Britain to take on conceivably stiffer opposition on grass. We would need to send our very best horses but I don’t think the prize-money would justify doing that. Of course, there’s the prestige and that’s why we are taking a shot with Animal Kingdom. But it’s a little hard to sit down after winning a $10 million race and discuss taking a horse to what is possibly going to be a stiffer test for a fraction of our prize-money.
The money is fantastic at home, but it has never really been about the money for me. I just feel we are so fortunate to be doing this job, enjoying the animals and the sport. It’s sad that the money takes us away from that a little bit.
How shocked were you by the recent revelations over anabolic steroid use in British racing, which has always regarded itself as drugs-free?
I was certainly shocked and somewhat disappointed. There is always going to be a very small percentage of people trying to push the envelope, be it in the US, Europe or Britain, and I think it’s a shame because the majority are not trying to do that. You are never going to get completely away from the use of drugs in any sport because you are always going to find someone trying to find an advantage. Sheikh Mohammed has done such an extraordinary amount for racing worldwide I just hope the misdemeanours of one of his trainers is no more than a bump in the road.
What are your memories of the 1987 Cheltenham Festival where, as assistant to Jonathan Sheppard, you brought over Flatterer from the States to chase home See You Then in the Champion Hurdle?
I have always said taking Flatterer to England is one of the memories I cherish most, perhaps more than some of my own accomplishments. We used John Francome’s yard for ten days leading up to the Champion Hurdle and John was an idol. As a 20-something having my first visit to Cheltenham, it was an amazing experience. I remember very clearly coming back to the unsaddling enclosure and getting this extraordinary reception for finishing second. That was really sporting and something that I’ll never forget. People were so appreciative of the fact that we had come over from America.
Have you ever considered returning to Europe to train, and have you had any offers?
I have thought about it but never really pursued it or had the opportunity. I am very happy in my present situation and would never have been able to get to where I am now in such a short period had I been training in England. The opportunities are so great here; after all, it is the land of opportunity. I am very lucky to have the best of both worlds, training for a lot of Europeans in America. I have not had any offers to train in England.
How much easier is it to set up as a trainer in America than in England?
Basically, all you need is a feed tub and a water bucket and you’re up and running. Of course you have to pass a trainer’s test, as you do in England, but as long as you are prepared to race at the track where you are stabled you are likely to be granted a number of stalls. It is almost too easy and we are inclined to take it for granted. Some of the problems we run into involve trainers who do not always have regard for the rules. It should be a privilege, because we are very fortunate to be able to train these amazing horses for owners, and we should all carry the responsibility that goes with it.
Most of your big-race wins have come over middle distances. Do you dislike sprinters, and wouldn’t Europe suit you better if you prefer training staying types?
I am the opposite of Robert Cowell, who is a good friend of mine and we joke about it all the time! It is not a coincidence that I have become a trainer of turf horses over longer distances. I spent my ‘five years of college’ working under Jonathan Sheppard and I have shaped my style of training around what I learnt with him. Having said that, I think we have a pretty good record on the dirt and we do run a lot of two-year-olds. It’s not that I dislike sprinters at all, I just find the longer-distance races are much more natural for the horses. As long as they’re fast, I am not too choosy!
What do you enjoy about training in America, and what do you dislike?
I am very fortunate being able to train at Fair Hill, which is an amazing facility and enables me to train more European-style, as opposed to being based on the track. The beauty of racing over here is that we have so many options, so many different types of races at so many different tracks at one time. We probably have half a dozen tracks within an hour of us. One of the hardest things to take is the number of injuries we get on the dirt. That’s a very tough part of the game.
How important is your wife, Anita, to the operation at your Maryland stable?
She is the backbone of the operation. At one time she was a very good rider but when you become a big operation it is more about the managerial running of the business, which Anita has taken under her wing and taught
herself. You start training because you like the animals, but when you get bigger you need someone to manage the business. That’s what Anita does.