Gently rolling hills and wide open spaces. Winding horse paths that rise and dip ever so slightly. Forest trails that lead to expansive fields. The singing of the birds the only sound.
Welcome to the idyllic horse heaven known as Fair Hill, located just a few miles from the Maryland--Delaware border. Nestled away in a quiet corner of this equine paradise, against a tree-lined backdrop is Team Valor’s private barn that is now home to the 2011 Kentucky Derby winner, Animal Kingdom.
It is Animal Kingdom’s first morning at Fair Hill, having arrived from Churchill Downs the previous evening.
Trainer Graham Motion arrives at his main barn just before 7 o’clock and goes over the roster of horses and daily activity with assistant trainer Adrian Rolls, and asks each exercise rider about their horse as they walk by.
“I finally got a good night’s sleep last night,” Motion said. “Last week it was all about stress and worrying about everything. And this week has been euphoria. Today is the first morning we’ve been back in our normal routine.”
Motion was pleased to report that his Wood Memorial winner Toby’s Corner, who was forced to miss the Derby with a still undiagnosed injury, is 50% sounder today.
“We still don’t know what the actual injury is, but I believe it may be a muscle judging by the way it responded to therapy yesterday,” he said.
After finishing up at the main barn, Motion got in his SUV and drove down to the “bottom barn,” which was Mike McCarthy’s barn before being purchased by Team Valor at the end of last year when Team Valor president Barry Irwin turned all his horses over to Motion.
Driving across several horse paths and passing another barn, Motion then turned into a winding tree-shaded dirt road that led to his new barn.
Irwin has spared no expense. In addition to the round pens and large paddocks that were there, they have installed or are in the process of installing an equine salt water spa, a vibrating floor, and a horse scale, where the horses are weighed every week. A new annex also is in the process of being completed. A short distance from the barn, there is a large round barn with an automatic horse walking machine encompassing 10 stalls and an office.
Motion’s wife, Anita, said they’re also building a path so the horses can go through the woods to get to the fields out back rather than the long hike they now have to take.
Motion said he is amazed at what Irwin has accomplished in such a short period of time.
“To have a Breeders’ Cup winner (BC Juvenile Turf winner Pluck) and a Kentucky Derby winner within six months from the same crop is an extraordinary feat, considering how few broodmares he has,” Motion said.
“I have to give a lot of credit to Barry. A lot of this is because of him. This horse won at Keeneland going a mile and an eighth last October. A lot of people would have gotten caught up with getting down to Florida. But he sent the horse to the farm in Ocala just to give him a break. There was nothing wrong with him. He just wanted to give him some time off and let him be a horse. Not many people do that this day and age and I think that’s a big factor why we are where we are.”
Heading the Team Valor barn is assistant Dave Rock, who has been with Animal Kingdom all year at Palm Meadows and at Keeneland. This is a rare stay at Fair Hill for him, and he, too, has been trying return to some sense of normalcy
“I feel like I’ve had my head cut off,” he said. “I don’t want to get too pumped up, because the Preakness comes up fast.”
While Rock is virtually a stranger to Fair Hill, Rolls is literally a stranger to Animal Kingdom.
“When I took Animal Kingdom off the van last night it was the first time I laid my hands on him,” he said. “I’d never seen him before. As soon as I got him off the van he put head straight down and started eating grass. He’s such a cool, professional horse.
“This really hasn’t sunk in yet. I was at Belmont Park Saturday saddling Daveran in the Beaugay and watched the Derby in David Donk’s office by myself. I’m cheering him on and there’s no one there. On the drive home my phone was ringing off the hook from well wishers.”
Motion already has several post-Derby tales to tell. One is receiving a phone call from Prince Faisal bin Salman from Saudi Arabia congratulating him.
“Even though I had trained several horses for the Prince I’d never spoken to him,” Motion said. “And here he calls me personally. It’s amazing.”
On the home front, when Motion delayed their flight from Kentucky a day it meant his son Marcus had to miss classes on Monday.
“We let the school know we delayed our flight a day and he wouldn’t be in on Monday,” Motion said. “The head of the school said winning the Kentucky Derby is the best excuse he’s ever heard for missing school.”
At 8:30, Animal Kingdom left the barn and made his first walk to the track. Fair Hill has a standard dirt track outside a Tapeta track. The son of Leroidesanimaux merely cantered once around with regular exerciser rider David Nava aboard and Rock alongside on the pony. After walking the shed and being washed down he was taken out to graze. After taking a few minutes to get his bearings he settled in and grazed contentedly for about 15 minutes and wasn’t too thrilled about having to go back in.
His coat shined like the proverbial copper penny, and being in this environment should help him come back in two weeks after running a “3-plus” Ragozin Sheets number, which was faster than Seattle Slew and Affirmed, and in fact the majority of Derby winners.
Motion still finds it hard to believe this is happening, especially after having watched his friend Michael Matz go through it with Barbaro on the opposite end of Fair Hill.
“Watching Michael go through it I never imagined it would ever happen to me, certainly not this early on in my career,” Motion said. “Michael is a good friend of mine and we travel through the circuit together, so I followed Barbaro closely. I just never expected it to happen to me. Standing in the winner’s circle after winning the Kentucky Derby was pretty surreal.
“I had never even thought about the Kentucky Derby. When I went out on my own I wanted to compete in grade ones. I hadn’t set a goal for myself to win the Kentucky Derby, partly because it’s placed so high on a pedestal I didn’t want to put that kind of pressure on myself. That’s not to say I didn’t think about it.
“I had been there twice before (finishing 11th with Chilito in 1998 and 19th with Adriano in 2008) and I made up my mind I didn’t want to do it again unless I felt like I really belonged. I never expected I’d get to come back so soon after the last time I ran. And to have two live contenders five days before the race was just extraordinary. I tried to take it all in while I was at Churchill, because it’s a pretty short amount of time you’re there and you never know if you’re ever going to get back there again. Just to go to the Preakness with a Derby winner is such a great feeling. It’s something not many people get to do.”
With all his sets out and back, Motion changed into a t-shirt and took his three Labradors out for a walk and then brought them in the office while he discussed several matters with longtime friend and secretary Sue Kenny. He knows what’s about to come and is trying to figure out a way to accommodate the hordes of media that will descend on Fair Hill next week, while keeping the Team Valor barn in relative tranquility. He suggests the media gather at the trainer’s stand at 9 o'clock each morning to watch Animal Kingdom train, after which at a designated time he will conduct his interviews.
“I want to make the most of these couple of weeks and make myself available to the media, because it’s a great time for racing. It’s going to be a little stressful. Unfortunately, I had told a lot of people not to send me horses until after the Derby when things settled down. But actually that’s not quite the way things worked out. I hadn’t anticipated winning the Derby, so it’s a little bit hectic around here with so many new horses coming in. But it’s a good problem to have.”
Now that Animal Kingdom has answered the question of dirt, Motion believes he is capable of great things.
“I’ve always felt this horse was exceptional,” he said. “I’ve yet to find a horse he can’t outwork in the morning. I’d always put it down to the other horses not being quite that good, but now I’m starting to think he’s just that special.”