Eclipse preparation

Racing Post, 26th June 2005

He is fresh again. So fresh that earlier in the week he had caused a turning, bucking commotion just on the walk from his box to the circling ring where he is now stalking stable mate Skidrow like some predatory panther. It is 6-15 on Friday morning. Motivator is not just ready for work, he needs it.

Three weeks on from his Epsom heroics Motivator is a very different creature from the tired, shoe-less, spotty-skinned animal that had posed for the team photos on the lawn behind us. A fortnight of mere regular canters up Warren Hill has restored him to the rudest of health. Skidrow and rider Hayley Turner have to put up with alarming snorts and jumps behind them every time Motivator has an excuse to move.

The plan is to box the two horses over to the Al Bahathri gallop on the other side of town to re-enact the same one mile piece of work that preceded the Derby. Johnny Murtagh is over in Ireland so Shane Featherstonehaugh’s long legged cool does duty in the saddle. It has been the hottest night of the year. Michael Bell is in shorts, so too is Duggie Honeywell taking on Richard Simpson’s role after Bell’s long serving head man was trapped into a Spanish holiday last week after what was billed as “a barbeque in Bishops Stortford” turned out to be a diversion off the M11 to Stansted.

Despite his posterings Motivator is calm and dry coated as he is loaded up, but by the time he is unboxed and Shane is back in the saddle the adrenalin is beginning to pump and the sweat is rushing through. As the horse is led past to the start of the canter, Roy Thorpe’s right arm braced hard against his bridle, there is something ferocious in the pent-up power behind the bit. This is sweat not of fear but of readiness.  

For our car there is a gate to open, a bumpy avenue to navigate before we mount the wooden viewing stand 6 furlongs up the Al Bahathri. Suddenly we are back into the rural, hay-sweet peace of a summer morning. A motor beats the other side of the railway line, larksong is almost loudly obtrusive, just half a dozen of us gather for the two dots to thicken on the horizon.

Skidrow is a decent sort of three year old who finished a good fifth in the Britannia Stakes at Royal Ascot at York last week. He also did this same task with the same rider in the pre-Derby work out. For a while the two horse Indian file seems to be closing rather slowly but as they near and Shane Featherstonehaugh moves Motivator out, you are hit by the moment every racing person always dreams of – the sight of a true thoroughbred on the stretch.

Only that Motivator isn’t anywhere near all out, the stretching is in Shane’s arms. He has the reins on the same long hold Johnny Murtagh used in the Dante, a great daub of sweat flecks the neck, and Motivator’s whole being exudes an urge to run a hole in the horizon. One of the oldest and wisest sayings in racing is that “all horses go fast past trees” but Skidrow in receipt of two stone is not exactly a tree, and Epsom has already shown us what Motivator can leave in his wake. As he rocketed away from us towards the awakening town we knew that Motivator was back.

There is a strange quietly-spoken euphoria after an exciting piece of work. The actual athlete cannot talk so all other participants are quizzed and re-quizzed. “Skidrow actually went keener than last time,” says Hayley Turner, “I wasn’t hard on him but when Motivator came upsides, he made a huge impression .” Shane Featherstonehaugh has one of those faces which do not readily crease into a smile, but the frown now was one of awe not worry. “He was really tremendous,” he said of his now-relaxed partner whose nostrils, quite literally, would not blow a candle out. “When I moved him out he gave a terrific feel. I honestly think he is better and stronger than ever before.”

Such delicacies are passed from mouth to mouth. Mrs Bell is there, and Master Bell ready with a new streamline haircut ready to defend his title in the Under 9s 50 metres later in the morning. Our local scribes consign the golden words to the notebook. “Very satisfactory” says the trainer with a chime in keeping with his “Jingle Bell” nickname. But when we have got into the car and are tracking the two horses on the way home, he lets the emotion out. “Just look at him,” he says as Motivator follows Skidrow beside the Bury Road, “that’s the only bit of work he has had in three weeks and he is not blowing at all. He is just a fantastic natural athlete.”

Back in the yard with the horses stripped down, hosed off and cropping grass as contentedly as cows in a field, the de-brief and the rekindling continues. Yet there is already a very different tone than pervaded on the same spot before The Derby. Then there was a yearning that the greatness they dreamed they were nurturing would actually emerge as reality across the Epsom turf. Now they are getting used to being the guardians of a super talent, confident of the challenges ahead.

First up is Shamardal in the Eclipse on Saturday. “It could get trappy,” says Michael Bell, “Frankie will try and slow it down from the front. But I doubt he, or anyone, has the acceleration to match this horse. He has really thrived since the Derby. He has still only had four races. He is growing up. He is getting better.”

Our hands are on him. Before the Derby the skin was almost tight along Motivator’s rib-cage, now there is just a hint more elasticity in the texture and an even deeper glow of well-being in the bay shine of his coat. This is a three year old thoroughbred on its way to prime. But the indulgence of patting it like a pony cannot conceal the pressure it must face. The skin rash which so disfigured his withers after the Derby is growing over and down on his feet farrier Dermot Barry has not just nailed the shoe back on, he has glued it. Next Saturday he has to run.

To be serious Dermot has had to resort to the American resin Equilox to ensure no-repetition of the off fore shoe loss not only during the closing stages of the Derby but again at the end of  his Warren Hill exercise ten days ago. “The trouble is that he doesn’t grow any hoof,” says Dermot who also tended Motivator’s feet as a foal and yearling in his nursery days at Deerfield Farm. “He was fine as a two year old but since December the feet have hardly grown any horn at all. You could pare them off with a nail file. Other farriers tell me they have had this with champion horses. They seem to be that more refined a machine than the others.”

Dermot’s answer to the conundrum will be to fix both front racing plates with the Equilox resin on Thursday. “It takes a bit of time and you have to be very careful but once it has been done you are as certain as can be that the shoe will stay on. We used it on a good sprinter Red Carpet a couple of years back, so we do know it works.”

Motivator consents amenably as we prod away at the offending off fore-hoof with its orangey brown coat of resin above the shoe. In his switched off mode, he remains the relaxed creature who so memorably lay down and went to sleep when some of his celebrated owners were admitted to his box a couple of months ago. You give him a friendly pat on the neck as you do any horse. Then you remember that you are patting a Derby winner and feel almost cheeky doing it.  

For next week he will once again be very far from the cuddly pony. Roy Thorpe and James Cronin will march him manfully into the paddock. Johnny Murtagh will stroke those long calming fingers on the neck and back in Newmarket the Fitzroy House team will look on in both anticipation and wonder. “It’s extraordinary,” said the experienced Sarah Nicholson as we trekked back down from Warren Hill later on Friday, “I rode him a year ago and he seemed so weak, yet now he has emerged into this mighty being. I guess it’s what we dream of.”

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