Hard Places - By Evan Hammonds

When the “the field is sent on its way to the roar of the Del Mar crowd,” is announced by Trevor Denman, and racing also returns to Saratoga Race Course in upstate New York, the Thoroughbred sport in North America is in its “happy place.”

But it wasn’t all that cheerful in the Bluegrass over the weekend as a weather phenomenon best described as a microburst roared through Central Kentucky July 20. Trees that had survived a century or more were felled across farms throughout the area, with Woodford County taking the brunt of the devastation. The sounds of chain saws and generators continue to hum days after the event.

But business hummed at Saratoga, too, as the venerable track lifted the curtain with a pair of grade 1 races over the weekend, the Diana Stakes (G1T) July 21 and the following day’s Coaching Club American Oaks (G1).

The Diana, first run in 1939, has to be one of the toughest races on the calendar to win. In the last five runnings the winner of the nine-furlong turf test has had to be determined by the photo-finish camera.

This year’s winner, Peter Brant’s Sistercharlie, staged a furious rally to catch Alex G. Campbell Jr.’s Ultra Brat in the final jump. Ultra Brat is trained by Graham Motion, who was none-too-cheerful after the race despite the grade 1 effort put in by the daughter of Uncle Mo.

Motion, who has 95 career wins at the Spa, holds the distinction of having run second in the Diana five times since 2006, an incredible and agonizing run, especially considering how close he’s come.

Last year the Motion-trained Quidura fell a head shy of heavy favorite Lady Eli; in 2011 Flaxman Holdings’ Aruna was 1 1/2 lengths behind Zagora; in 2010 Sagamore Farm’s Shared Account dropped a head decision to Proviso; and in 2006, Don Adam’s Sweet Talker was a head short of Angara.

Add the fact that in 2016 Motion’s Miss Temple City was fourth—beaten a nose, head, and a nose—and one gets an idea just how tough this race is to win.

“It’s a source of great frustration,” said Motion the day after the Diana. “The grade 1 races at Saratoga are held in such high regard. There is something special about the New York races that have such a long history. These are the races you always want to win.

“Even going back to when I was with Jonathan Sheppard (Motion was his assistant) it seemed that every year we had a runner in that race. It is a race I’ve always pointed toward, and it is frustrating to be so close.”

While Ultra Brat was a 15-1 shot in the Diana’s seven-horse field, Motion felt strong enough to convince Campbell to make his way to Saratoga for the race. Campbell, a Lexington breeder, is no stranger to winning grade 1 races, having taken a few with homebreds Queens Court Queen (1995), Mr Purple (the 1996 Santa Anita Handicap), and Karlovy Vary (2012).

“He had a great weekend, and that is what it is all about,” Motion said.

Campbell stuck around for Sunday’s card and saw his 2-year-old first-time starter, Aunt Ashley, run second on the turf in a maiden special weight contest. He had a better outlook once he returned to his home in Florida.

“I’ve had a lot of trainers in my 60 years in racing, and Graham is right at the top of all of them,” Campbell said.

“I’m very happy with the weekend. You hate not to win, but she ran big and got beat by a great horse. Saratoga is such a wonderful track and such a beautiful town.”

“Wins at Saratoga are so sweet,” Motion continued. “You realize that when you go through days like we had this weekend. You can’t take any of them for granted.”

The good days are hard to come by. Don’t forget to savor them when they come along.

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