Before Leopardstown

Racing Post, 8th September 2005

In the last month a lively sprig of completely white hair has mysteriously grown at the end of Motivator’s mane. No one knows why it has come, but on Tuesday morning it was the training team not the Derby winner that were getting the grey hair treatment

“It seems so bloody silly to only start watering on Monday,” grumbled Michael Bell as he sipped his tea in the kitchen at a quarter to seven. “I am going over to walk the course in Ireland tomorrow (Wednesday) but without a lot of rain forecast I don’t see how it can be good ground, can’t see us running. And the horse is so, so well.”

The frustration was equally rough in the fug of the tack room. “It looks like a bollocks to me,” said Motivator’s groom James Cronin. “All my family have booked tickets to come to Leopardstown. So have Shane’s and Dermot the Blacksmith. The horse is in great shape. He has come on real good since his break. And now it looks as if we are scuppered.” It a sultry morning in Newmarket and all our moods seem to match.

All, that is, except Motivator’s. Five weeks ago he had looked almost sleek after spending most of July on an easy routine following that first ever defeat in the Eclipse. Now the muscle definition is hard along the line of his neck and across his quarters. The full month back on full exercize has sharpened him mentally as well as physically. Last week he chased James Cronin across the box. Motivator doesn’t read the papers. He just fees ready to rumble.

“Yes, he’s crying out for a run,” says exercise rider Shane Featherstonehaugh as we make our way out of the Fitzroy House yard and set off through the town. “He has done three pieces of work, the last one with Dettori on Friday. He shows so much speed that I think Leopardstown would suit him. But not if it doesn’t rain. I looked at the Eclipse video again yesterday and it’s obvious that the ground was the problem, his head came up and he just would not stretch.”

 Threading our way through the four wheeled and four legged early morning traffic was to sense how quickly the slippery soap of fame escapes. Back in June Motivator was a superstar, now he is merely another horse in the string, nobody points and says “there’s the Derby winner”. The Irish Champion and other big races could go by without him. Next year he will probably be at stud. Was that golden Epsom memory just a passing joy?

Such gloomy thoughts are suddenly overtaken by more important matters. As we walk towards the Bury Road, up Warren Hill in the distance we can see two figures galloping up Warren Hill. The large one is trainer Bell on Ruby, the heavy-footed stable hack, the little one is 8 year old Nick Bell on 19 year old It’s A Secret, an old pony entrusted to give him the thrill of playing the jockey game up the gallops before going to a new school on Thursday. Nick’s chunky smile afterwards tells of mission accomplished.

Back with the string, lead horse Glen Ida suddenly declines to do his duty as we file along the railed walkway before the start point. Motivator back sideways in huffy disapproval and it is left to me and the admirable Woodcracker to step past and ease the knot. The moment before launch off always has moments of potential bucking, kicking chaos. But as Glen Ida pulls himself together and shoots off with Motivator in tow, order is restored and from behind you can admire the most valuable backside in racing as the hooves flick up divots on the designated strip between the white markers.

To be sneakily truthful he didn’t always go between the discs. A lot of other horses had already been up the gallop and as the early part was quite chewed-up Shane Featherstonehaugh took something of a Derby winner’s prerogative and put Motivator on the clean turn outside the markers. “Just my luck,” he said as we pulled up. “The better ground was too good to resist but half way along there was the gallops man watching. I suppose he is entitled to his moan.”

That irritation is only added to by the moments that have gone before. Wooodcracker is a perfectly decent horse and the stable hope for The Cambridgeshire. At pace he sets his chestnut neck good and straight enough to give me a uniquely privileged close up of what makes Motivator tick. The stride is not long and floating as, say Nashwan’s was. It is quick, super efficient, the hocks flipping back as the muscles bunch on the hind quarters above. It is an which impresses of tactical speed. That is what could be crucial come Saturday.

“I think Azamour is a cracking horse,” said Shane as he yearned for Leopardstown to have something different to the sizzling sun which was now hot enough to have the admittedly sweaty Temple Place in a lather as he readies for his pacemaker duties this weekend. “But if we were to run. I think the course would suit us better than him. He looks like a horse who takes time to get going. Mick Kinane has had to really stoke him up. It will be a difficult job for Soumillon.”

At that stage we didn’t know about the defection of Dettori, but walking across past Mark Prescott’s to do a second canter up the polytrack gave time to visualize the opportunity that awaits Kevin Darley. Azamour is a full size bigger than Motivator. At this moment he represents the absolute “beau-ideal” of the mature, powerful thoroughbred. But his awesome finishing punch needs quite a swing to make it effective. With Motivator, Darley should have the more maneuverable fighter.    

That’s the theory. On Tuesday morning it still looked unlikely that there would be the chance of practice. Which meant more grumbles as we pulled up at the end of four and a half winging furlongs on the Polytrack. “That horse is really ready now,” said head man Richard Simpson looking at Motivator from his seat aboard the white-foamed Temple Place. “And to think that they have leased this guy specially to be a pace maker. They are booked to fly on Friday but I guess it might all be a waste of time.”

We loose girths, lower leathers and file back down the walkway beside the road. Up the Polytrack the Godolphin horses are a long swinging battalion of sky blue jackets and bright white bandages. Amongst the spectators is a Newmarket Tours group who don’t recognize Motivator and Michael “Whispering Death” Holding who does.

The great fast bowler is, of course, a Bajan countryman of Michael Stoute who is now busying around his string as he re-arranges them for their second canter just ahead of us. Down the other side of the road, the regulation beige shirts of the Cumani string include one aboard the Aussie star Starcraft who came good so impressively on Sunday. Big stars, but the brightest could still be the light footed bay in front of us. On cue, Motivator skitters sharply left. “All dressed up,” Michael Bell had said mournfully, “and nowhere to go.”

It seems an age since we began these stable visits back in the January chill. In those nine months Motivator, still only three years old god help us, has fulfilled his promise and has matured mentally. But now he has to do more. And when we finally reach home, strip off saddles and have a hose-down, you can inspect the reasons for believing that possible.

When he was finally wound up for the Derby you could detect just a hint of ribbiness. Now, although he is hard and fit, he has kept a bit more substance behind the saddle. At 16 hands, he is not a huge horse. But when you run your hands over him, you can feel that every piece of him works.

Even his feet. The loss of an off-fore shoe in the Derby had been repeated at exercise. The time off after the Eclipse has give the foot time to mend and picks it up to show the “new balance” system he has adopted, the shoe tacked slighty inside the edge of the hoof , to avoid overreach. “I am happier with him now,” says Dermot. “I would be even happier if I knew he was definitely running and my tickets weren’t going to waste.”

Time to move on. Michael Bell is in the office and there is a slight change to his tone. “They now say there is the possibility of some quite heavy rain in Ireland,” he says as he comes off the phone. “Maybe it’s too late, but you never know. I have always said that this was the race I thought he could win.”

Meanwhile the betting lists remain disbelievers. Some not offering Motivator at all, some as much as four or five to one. The King’s Theatre is on the road down from the Bell stable to St Mary’s Church. Their next attraction is called “Never Judge A Bookie.” This time the bookies could be wrong.

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