Days to the Derby

Racing Post, 29th May 2005

You could see his ribs. Only from an acute angle from the front and then just an outline against the gleaming flesh along Motivator’s flanks, but for the first time in 6 months of these Newmarket pilgrimages, you could see exactly what everybody had been working for. The Derby favorite is ready.

It is no small achievement. This year, as in the two full centuries before, the long road to Epsom has been littered with horses who didn’t make it. But Michael Bell and his Fitzroy House team have got Motivator there. The explosive freshness of the January trotting break moved to the hardening canters in sometimes snow-clad February, to the first work in March, the excitement of the gallop in April, the dilemma of the Guineas to Dante switch, the delivery on the Knavesmire, and now this image of readiness as Shane Featherstonehaugh pulled the sheet off Motivator’s back at 7 o’clock on Thursday morning.

But Shane, Michael Bell and all the rest already know that pressure heightens as destiny closes in. One false move and even taking part in the Derby dream is over. On Tuesday afternoon Johnny Murtagh erred, a faulty move in a footling race, a flint-hearted stewards’ panel and a minor ban became a massive blow. Thursday morning’s paper had Darryl Holland on standby, and a host of late news updates from the previous day’s successful Epsom breakfast briefing on the downs. But back in the stable nothing matters compared to the horse.

He is what they can influence. He is what they believe in and worry about. As every hour passes both the belief and the worry grows. Seeing him in his box, standing tall and composed under bridle and saddle, was to have relief that Motivator can’t read the papers, listen to the news or watch endless replays of Derby trials or of his own impressive but not wholly straightforward performance in the Dante.

He has taken his preparation well. Head man Richard Simpson cannot sleep but Motivator can. Richard is getting up at 3-30 am, feeds Motivator with a bowl and a half of corn at 5-30, another two bowls at lunch time, and two and a half plus extras in the evening. “He left a little bit Wednesday morning after that final work on the Al Bahathri” said Richard, “but he’s back in today. He’s eating really, really well. Run your hand over him. I think he’s spot on.”

You trace your fingers over the arch of the neck where the pimples used to be, press your palm against the rib-cage behind the girth and take it on to trace the now fully defined lines of muscles along the quarters. To run your hand over a champion’s frame is the most intimate privilege athletics has to offer. Motivator may not win the Derby but his physique, like his form, does match a Derby winner’s profile. There is enormous power but no excessive weight, slabs of hardened muscle beneath a silky skin, a sense of coiled vitality almost electric to the touch.

That sense of crackle becomes much more evident once the horse comes out and takes his place in the string. Other horses plod or march along, Motivator stalks, the eyes very aware, the neck upright, the hooves placed carefully until a sudden sparking current of well-being sends them dancing on the spot. “He is very, very well,” say Michael Bell in tones that have become well versed as he gives interviews at a rate of about 15 to the hour. “He has worked well, run well and is in very good form. If he handles the whole Epsom hoop-la we think we have a winning chance.”

This simple open strategy is as well considered as it is refreshing. For, without hyperbole, the trainer is stating what the stable believes. “It seems extraordinary to be saying this,” he offered at the Epsom Press conference, “but the truth is that we will be disappointed if he doesn’t win. Of course all sorts of things can go wrong, but we think we are sitting on something exceptional.” 

They are also entering a closing countdown where the worries nag like toothache in the mind. “I didn’t like the way he hung right at York,” confides Shane Featherstonehaugh. “Johnny Murtagh has said that he was going across to some better ground and was a bit green, but I can’t really have that. Still he’s in great heart. I think he will stay because he will be coasting in the race. I just hope he gets through all the razzmatazz beforehand. I think he will fizz in the parade a bit.”

Shane will watch it at home with his partner Louise and her little boy  Cole. When Motivator hit the front at York, they made so much noise that poor Cole burst into tears. At Epsom it will be the brawny arms of James Cronin holding the lead rein with the super experienced Roy Thorpe on the other side. “He was fresh when we unboxed him at the course,” remembers James in his tough and sunny way. “He gave a few bucks but calmed down. Epsom will be a bit crowded but yeah, we’ll get him through.”

The horse himself does not give interviews. Pity really because you think that by now he would be treating the whole hoop-la with something close to Roy Keane disdain. He is a three year old colt who has been reared for this moment since the day he was foaled at Deerfield Farm just three miles away in Dullingham. Running is what he does. On Thursday he did it twice up the Warren Hill polytrack but it was after crossing the Bury Road that he made his statement. As a wobbly trailer rattled by, Motivator suddenly put in two enormous, saddle shifting bucks. Shane sat tight. Empires have been lost for less.

Walking back through Newmarket past and present combine. The Godolphin horses are all bright blue jackets and snowy white bandages on the sky line. Somewhere else the Derby winning Michael Stoute is readying his outsiders and Derby craving Clive Brittain is getting Hattan primed. All of them know that what happens at Epsom is more than just a horse race, more than the mere fulfillment of a professional dream. It is their chance of a place in history.

Chris Conway has been almost 50 years in racing, claims to have done more winners than anyone in Newmarket but has never had a Derby runner. “Well I did have when I was at Jeremy Hindley’s,” he said as we rode through past St Mary’s, “but I had a broken leg and couldn’t go. A little horse called Cocaine. He finished fifth. This horse of ours has lots of class. He might not stay but he should be able to cruise for a long time. It would be great for the yard.”

In the past Fitzroy House has looked down on Derby winners Mahmoud, Bahram and Tulyar picking grass in the sunshine as Motivator does now. Saddles are off, girth marks are sponged, hooves are hosed as farrier Dermot Barry readies himself for his crucial six-nail-a-shoe plating which he will do on Wednesday. Motivator poses for final photos. We bask in the simple pleasure of being around an animal on whose handsome but unwitting head so much depends.

Later in the morning Bill Cowe and his team at Deerfield Farm will proudly hold a cheeky bay yearling which is Motivator’s full brother and therefore may achieve a six figure increase in value just by cropping grass next Saturday. The stud staff stand around remembering silly nursery things about what is now a headline horse, rubbing the lamp of memory as they too dream of a golden entry in the record book.

Back at Fitzroy House Michael Bell goes to do a spot of hedge-trimming to escape the telephone. But Motivator does not know he is Derby favorite. As always he gets down in his box to have a good roll after exercise. As he gets up he shakes the shavings off and gives a little snort of satisfaction. He is three years old and life feels extra good. Next Saturday it could feel even better yet.  

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