Breakdown

Racing Post, 25th October 2005

On Saturday at Doncaster, the name “M.Bell” flashed up on the mobile phone. Exactly a year before it had been on the winners’ board of The Racing Post Trophy and in that same room our idea of following a Derby favourite through his winter and spring preparation had begun. Now Motivator’s trainer had news of a final brilliant gallop but also of a career-ending lameness once back in the yard. For all of us it was over.

For all of us it has been quite a journey. To follow a classic favourite and what his training meant to those closest to him had been a personal ambition ever since we made a film about Mill Reef back in 1972. For by the time of the film Mill Reef was already a Derby and Arc winner from the season before. Last October Motivator was just a hyped-up hopeful. Yet for Michael Bell and his Fitzroy House team he was the best horse they had ever handled, their first Group One winner. Now he was the stuff of Derby dreams. We would need to tread softly.

What was at stake for the Bell team, and don’t ever underestimate this, was a place in racing legend. They knew, as we all know, that most horses either go wrong, don’t match expectations or, and this happens very often, get messed up by the training team. From late last summer they had been convinced they were dealing with something exceptional. The Racing Post Trophy confirmed it. Now they had to get him to the Classics. And they accepted us in.

It was the most enjoyable long term assignment of what is laughingly called “my career”. With an article a month there was space for all the characters to emerge. Richard Simpson, the head man with the 4-30 am start; James Cronin, Motivator’s groom of the bulging forearms and the boxing medals; Shane Featherstonehaugh the exercise rider who could sit calm in a whirlwind – as Motivator was on fresh occasions; “Bombardier” Roy Thorpe, box driver, traffic stopper and Motivator’s right hand man in the big race lead up; Hayley Turner, the stable apprentice quite unfairly matching beauty with talent; Chris Conway, the craggy veteran to whom the first doesn’t apply but the second sees him still playing classy football at 59.

The list goes on, as it does with all stables, to embrace everyone from office to saddle, from entry to exit. What was special about 2005 is that from the beginning everyone at Fitzroy House knew they had the chance of living out the ultimate racing dream, and that all were a part of having it delivered. In time they will all, even 8 year old Nick Bell “the chunky computer”, will grow old. But even in their croakiest dotage, there will be the shaking of an aged head and the phrase “I was with Motivator.”

That’s what a Derby winner can do for you, and as the horse recovers from his injury, the memories come tumbling through. There was the explosive moment when the lorry hit it’s air brakes on the Bury Road and Motivator did an instant 360 ; galloping through the snow with Czech rider Dalibor Torock replacing a broken-wristed Shane ; the first piece of work with a sunlit Newmarket grandstand emerging symbolically out of the mist; the decision to miss The Guineas, “the guvnor’s getting hate mail,” said Richard Simpson, “and that’s just from the staff.”

When Motivator duly won the Dante we had to confront the dream becoming reality and no image better illustrated how much it meant than the sight of Cronin and Thorpe leading Motivator out of the Epsom stables and up towards the parade ring. They were breathing deep, faces set, the horse saddled. Getting through the next twenty minutes was their responsibility. They would not fail it.  

Everyone who has ever had a runner knows the tension, anyone lucky enough to have a winner knows the elation. But to have a Derby winner is something else. I was only a passing scribbler who had occasionally galloped up Warren Hill in vain pursuit of Motivator’s muscled backside. Yet when he went clear this June it was my most thrilling moment on a racecourse since Mill Reef went clear in the Ganay and the film, on which my future depended, was safe. As Motivator swept past, I somersaulted over the Epsom rails and sprinted up the track to dance around with James and Roy and Dermot Barry, the farrier. It was as silly and as stupendous as that.

In your gut you sensed it couldn’t get better and it didn’t. Not that Motivator ran badly, indeed his fifth in the Arc remains his highest Racing Post Rating. But after Epsom, after that wonderful night in Newmarket and that hung over morning with the horse spotty and sore-footed from his exertions, a touch of reality only reinforced how special Derby Day had been.

While the Eclipse was being run, I was covering the Ladies Final from the Centre Court at Wimbledon. A text beeped on my phone. It was from Clement Freud “Disgruntled” of the Royal Ascot Owners Club – “The horse I don’t own,” it said, “did not win the Eclipse.” The worry then was whether Motivator had shirked a fight. At Leopardstown he proved that wrong, but was stuck in front and still got beat. At Longchamp he got the break too soon and didn’t quite last home. Coming back on the plane James Cronin cradled the horse’s head in his arms and said dolefully, “I suppose that might be it. But I know one thing. I will never do another like him.”

At the Bell yard there was a dampened feeling, as if everyone was still soaked from Longchamp’s pre-Arc downpour. The two year olds, normally the stable’s strong point, were proving useless. The star was off to stud. Reasons to live were over.

Then came the decision to run in America. Roy, James and Shane all got visas in excitement. Hadn’t Sir Ivor’s career ended up in triumph across the Atlantic? He didn’t run as a four year old. Belmont, with the help of both bute and lasix, could be the answer. At Newmarket on Champion’s Day, Shane came up with a smile as warm as the sunshine. “I tell you what,” he said in his quiet Irish way, “he worked really brilliant this morning.”

It was not to be, but in the grand scheme of things it does not matter. For in pure merit terms Motivator was not the best classic winner we have ever seen, nor actually even the best of his generation. But he was the one

we were closest to. That mattered. May the memories never fade.

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