It sounds odd to say of a man who already lays claim to having saddled a Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) winner, but in terms of training a 3-year-old that bears the target as one to beat in the run up to the first Saturday in May, this is all new territory for Graham Motion.
This time six years ago, the Motion trainee that would earn the earn the prefix of "2011 Kentucky Derby winner" was days out from getting beat in his seasonal debut—on turf no less. There was no buzz around the name Animal Kingdom . No one proclaimed that the chestnut Adonis would bring classic accolades to his conditioner who had only had two prior starters in the first leg of the Triple Crown.
This season started off similarly quiet enough for Motion as he readied a new chestnut talent for his sophomore debut. There would be no slow burn for Irish War Cry though, as he took the first opportunity to announce his presence.
He will try and do so again March 4 when the gate is loaded for $400,000 Xpressbet.com Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) at Gulfstream Park. On the heels of his 3 3/4-length triumph in the Feb. 4 Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes (G2)—where he dispatched a field that included reigning juvenile male champion Classic Empire—Irish War Cry can give Motion the distinction of having a divisional favorite in his shedrow should he prevail out of post 8 over 10 rivals in Saturday's 1 1/16-mile test.
Unbeaten in three starts, Isabelle de Tomaso's homebred colt didn't debut until November, when he broke his maiden coming from off the pace to win by 4 1/2 lengths going six furlongs at Laurel Park. He got his nose down to take the Marylander Stakes in front-running fashion Dec. 31, but few have that seven-furlong contest on their short list of juvenile races when scouting potential Derby candidates.
What does catch attention is when a horse steps into graded company for the first time and runs a race where the Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) winner never threatens him at any point. Such was the case during Irish War Cry's gate-to-wire Holy Bull win, an effort that surpassed the positive expectations Motion carried into that litmus test.
"I had a real toss-up between running in there or running in the Sam F. Davis (G3 on Feb. 11). And I felt like both races were going to be very competitive," Motion said. "You were either going to run against Classic Empire or run against (unbeaten McCraken). So, you know, I just hoped that we belonged. I could have never anticipated him winning the way he did, although obviously I hoped he would be competitive.
"With Animal Kingdom, he ran in an allowance race at Gulfstream and was actually beaten, so this horse in way ahead of him in that respect. He's already done a lot more, and that's not to compare the two. But it's just a different path than I've ever been down before."
With Classic Empire emerging from the Holy Bull with a foot abscess and word this week that McCraken will miss the March 11 Tampa Bay Derby (G2) because of a slight ankle strain, Irish War Cry could assume the designation as the leading Kentucky Derby contender should he handle the Gulfstream surface with the aplomb he did a month ago.
He will face another well-rounded group of challengers, led by multiple grade 1 winner Practical Joke, who is making his 2017 bow for trainer Chad Brown. The son of Into Mischief is making his first start since finishing third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, which was his first outing around two turns.
Prior to his Breeders' Cup defeat, Klaravich Stables and William Lawrence's Practical Joke captured his first three starts, including victories in the Hopeful Stakes (G1) and Champagne Stakes (G1). He will have a new rider in Jose Ortiz for his 3-year-old debut, as his previous pilot, Joel Rosario, has opted to stick with Irish War Cry.
Peacock Racing Stables' Gunnevera put in a good run to get second behind Irish War Cry in the Holy Bull, finishing five lengths clear of third-place finisher Classic Empire. If a stout pace develops on the front end in the Fountain of Youth, the son of Dialed In would have little excuse to not flaunt his big late kick as he did when he won the $1 million Delta Downs Jackpot Stakes (G3) Nov. 19 and the Saratoga Special (G2) in August.
"To me, it was a winning race," trainer Antonio Sano said of Gunnevera's Holy Bull run. "On the last turn my horse was bumped and it broke the action of my horse."
Multiple stakes winner Three Rules heads into the Fountain of Youth off a runner-up finish in the Swale Stakes (G2) Feb. 4, while Made You Look, the winner of the Dania Beach Stakes (G3T) in his seasonal bow, tries dirt for the first time in what will be his seventh start.
Gulfstream Park, Saturday, March 04, 2017, Race 13
PP Horse Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L 1 1Huracan Americo (FL) Edgar S. Prado 122 Dante Zanelli, Jr. 50/1 2 2Gunnevera (KY) Javier Castellano 122 Antonio Sano 7/2 3 3Quinientos (KY) Marcos Meneses 116 Enrique A. Sanchez 50/1 4 4Talk Logistics (FL) Joe Bravo 116 Edward Plesa, Jr. 20/1 5 5Beasley (KY) Irad Ortiz, Jr. 116 Mark A. Hennig 6/1 6 6Practical Joke (KY) Jose L. Ortiz 122 Chad C. Brown 3/1 7 7Three Rules (FL) Luis Saez 120 Jose Pinchin 12/1 8 8Irish War Cry (NJ) Joel Rosario 122 H. Graham Motion 5/2 9 9Made You Look (KY) John R. Velazquez 122 Todd A. Pletcher 10/1 10 10Takaful (KY) Paco Lopez 116 Kiaran P. McLaughlin 12/1 11 11Lookin for Eight (KY) Julien R. Leparoux 116 Mark E. Casse 20/1
Gulfstream Park, Saturday, March 04, 2017, Race 13