Before the Dante

Racing Post, 8th May 2005

The mantra from the trainer, like the politicians, had been “actions not words”. But driving back from watching Motivator gallop on Friday morning Michael Bell could not help himself. “It’s just so exciting,” he said.

There was an image he could not get out of his eyes. Ten minutes earlier Johnny Murtagh had pulled his whip through from his left hand to his right as he gathered the colt beneath him. It was no more than an elaborate re-threading of the reins but in an instant Motivator quickened to smother the talented Glen Ida as a class horse should. Less than a week to the Dante, just four weeks to the Derby itself, this is the authentic classic dream – and with it come the nightmares.

For the seven and a half furlongs that Glen Ida and Motivator had traveled was up Newmarket’s “Watered Gallop” was just 100 yards across from the Rowley Mile on which the Dubawi dream so memorably foundered last weekend. All that winter sunshine, all those Dubai Millenium genes, all that Godolphin attention to detail availed him nothing when the crunch came and frailty claimed him. At York on Thursday it will be Motivator’s turn to load into the stalls. In two and a quarter minutes, it could all be over.

“I think it will be a long week,” Roy Thorpe had said earlier as he held Motivator’s bridle and legged a sky blue jacketed Johnny Murtagh into the saddle. The former Bombardier is normally the most fire-proof of characters. But he has delayed retirement to his long boat in Ely for the chance to drive Motivator to Epsom. Two weeks ago he took him there for a rehearsal. The challenge was there for all of us to see.

We saw Motivator jig-jog in the paddock and whip round before the start. Will he boil over on the big day? We saw him come down the hill on the wrong leg and seem to have a slight knee action. Will he handle Epsom’s notorious cambers at racing pace?  But we also saw the way he cruised up to the decent handicapper Magic Sting. Why look further for the Derby favourite ?

Yet the fact that everything with Motivator has so far progressed so perfectly only increases the pressure on those closest to him. Training is about avoiding avoidable mistakes, volatile three year old colts are always close to the unavoidable. As Motivator and Glen Ida follow Ruby, the big, white-faced stable hack, up the avenue to the racecourse, one of those “unavoidables” jumps at us.

It is a Newmarket tractor-mower to which Motivator takes exception. He does his trademark whip round to the left and Glen Ida does likewise. Suddenly a knot of non-cooperation is tightening in his mind. He backs towards the fence posts. Michael Bell has seen it before. He is out of the car and running to avoid contrariness becoming confrontation. He gets to the horse’s bridle but Motivator tries to push him back into the posts. Murtagh stays quiet as the colt’s unwillingness is disentangled. Eventually Motivator and Glen Ida both consent to join old Ruby in a rather undignified bucking trot out  way past the back of the grandstand and off to the far end of the track.

There is only just time to get the car across to the end of the gallop. It is a brilliant May morning. In the wider world exhausted post election politicos are spouting about new beginnings. Here with the Newmarket stand gleaming in the sunshine, the little historical sporting universe of the racing game does not seem that petty an escape. Two specs on the horizon develop into Glen Ida and Motivator winging close to the white rail which guides them. Italian Derby hope Glen Ida was a length off Dee Stakes winner Hattan last time. Richard Mullen is carrying a good ten pounds less than Johnny Murtagh but Glen Ida quickens we get that Motivator closes up in that eye- catching moment. It’s a lot less than what will be required at York let alone Epsom. But the impression will do.

Returning back down the avenue Motivator is still jogging and snorting as the adrenalin surges through. But by the time the little party reach the stables he is back to his normal domestic calm. The saddle is removed to reveal an athlete really lean and ready. He is walked off to crop grass as Murtagh and Bell go into conference. “For me that’s the best bit of work he has done,” says Richard Mullen who has ridden the target horses throughout. “My feller travels really well and is rated 103 but Motivator was all class. The ground was good and he moved brilliantly on it. Don’t anyone tell you he is just a heavy going horse.”

Johnny Murtagh has been through the Derby hoops. He took Sinndar all the way to Epsom and Longchamp in 2000, and came in for the perfect “spare ride” on High Chapparal. He is too sensible to start giving “we are the champions” quotes prematurely, confining himself to the facts so far. “He has done everything right. I am pleased he went to Epsom. He handled the track well. He is in good shape and we are all set for Thursday.”

Murtagh is one of the understated heroes of our age. A small bowl of cereal was all he allowed himself early morning. After a black coffee he will limber up for racing with the regular 4 mile run which helps to pare 3 lbs from his skeletal frame every day. After the twins born two months ago, his wife Orla now has five little Murtaghs at home near the Curragh. The youngest twin only came out of hospital on Thursday. Other worries, but it was Murtagh who suggested the Epsom reconnaissance trip, he who advised missing the Guineas for which the fast ground would have anyway ruled Motivator a non-runner. Johnny Murtagh is a specialist fully wrapped up with the case.

His is the last and most crucial of roles. But the whole team must plan every step to those starting stalls. Motivator is likely to hack away early from the paddock to avoid any mind-knotting whip rounds. He will be boxed rather than led over the Knavesmire for fear of his ebullience exploding. He will be driven up on Wednesday for what will be his first ever night away. He will be plated on Monday afternoon to give the foot time to settle, and farrier Dermot Barry will use 6 nails rather than the usual four. 

While Murtagh goes off for his run, the Bell second lot walk through Newmarket to gallop up the Warren Hill polytrack. I ride Planet, a big, tall three year old for whom the John Warren / Harry Herbert team paid 115,000 gns as a yearling, 40,000 more than they shelled out for Motivator. Michael Bell remembers being envious when the yearling Planet was sent to Michael Stoute. But promise was not fulfilled. Planet has had his “satellites” removed and Bell is now undertaking a lesser campaign which has already clocked up a little race at Windsor.

Planet stretches well enough up the gallop but the racing reality lesson hangs harsh in the air. “I am beginning to feel rather sick,” says Shane Featherstonehaugh who has spent so many hours in the Motivator saddle.  “I won’t be at York. I am not sure I will be able to make myself watch it on TV. I don’t know how I will take it if he just turns out not good enough. ”

Doubts and then renewed determination; with the Derby closing in, it is ever thus. James Cronin will be holding Motivator’s head as his would-be champion bounces into the paddock on Thursday. “He’s taken everything so well so far,” says James. “He’s very fit but he will be pretty fresh next week. He’s just begging for a run.”  As Dante day looms he won’t be the only one begging for the dream to continue.

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