In the snow

Racing Post, 27th February 2005

It was Motivator’s birthday on Tuesday. He was just three years old on that bitter-cold, snow-clad Newmarket morning but is already hardening into a gleaming jewel some nine weeks and fifteen before his classic dates in the Guineas and the Derby.  Pity we can’t say the same about his trainer and his rider.

Michael Bell broke his collar bone on one of the very last days of “traditional” hunting with the Cottesmore two weeks ago. Shane Featherstonehaugh smashed his wrist when a two year old flipped its lid on the walk back down Warren Hill a week before. At 7 am on Tuesday the wounded pair stood in Motivator’s box as if to draw strength from the shining muscle packs of their hope and inspiration.

“He has now done three full weeks of cantering,” says Bell, wincing slightly as he adjusts the sling on his left arm, “and he is such an active, clean-winded horse that if you got excited you could begin to pick up with him straightaway. But we know that we want him to run on April 30th (2,000 Guineas), not a day before. We won’t do much more than his present routine before the beginning of April but I tell you he will be pretty fit by then.”

Motivator is tacked up and ready for first lot. It is just 4 weeks since our last visit but the change is immediate. Gone are the spots on the colt’s now arching neck, what was slack flesh behind the girth feels firm beneath the fingers, there is a glow about the coat which would not disgrace one of Godolphin’s sun-kissed contenders out in Dubai. All this on just two canters of a morning.

But this is not a human athlete but an equine one. This is a genetically programmed galloping machine which has been reared from birth to be able to run through a hole in the wind round the Epsom helter skelter in the summer of his three year old season. The job of the Michael Bell team is the same as has challenged classic trainers down the decades, to help the talent to blossom, not to force it. The task of the rider is to calm and control the buds beneath and, with Shane Featherstonehaugh’s left wrist out of stitches but still four weeks from the saddle, the riding responsibility now goes to 32 year old Dalibor Torock from the Czech Republic.

Dalibor has only been over here two months and his English is as yet confined to such words as “strong” (about Motivator) and “reeding” (meaning “riding”). But he has been steeped in racing since following his jockey uncle to the track, has won two St Legers back home in Prague and as we follow him and Motivator out towards Rowley Drive and down into Newmarket town, you can see that Dalibor is utterly fluent in the language of the thoroughbred.

Motivator likes a conversation. He’s not as fresh as last time, but there is a shining energy which marks him out from the rest of the 30 strong string all on the same diet and same routine. No big bucks or kick-boxing blows as in his trotting sessions, but there is the odd jig-jog and quick shuffle which shows the power rippling through.

The clock on St Mary’s Church shows  at 7-20 as we wind by. Another ten minutes and Roy “The Bombardier” Thorpe is politely holding up the traffic as we shrug at exasperated commuters on the Bury Road. Mark Prescott’s yard has a defiant “Fight Prejudice, Fight The Ban” sticker on the gate. We pull up long walking leathers to a shorter jockey perch for the opening canter up Warren Hill to our left. The horses begin to tense as they recognize the effort ahead. I am on a so far docile chestnut called Woodcracker who delivered a 12-1 touch for the delighted stable in a Class F Maiden at Nottingham last May. He does not bother himself as our progress grinds to a halt when James Eustace’s string jump in ahead. For a moment  Motivator does.

He whips round to the left in frustration. It is a habit he has had since he started cantering last year. There is no heavy nappiness in it and Dolibor sits on him as calmly as Shane did last month. Truly difficult horses can plunge and buck at this stage but Motivator has made his protest and now waits his turn. Eventually the Eustace aces have set off towards the horizon and Joey Smith on the grey Olihide leads off with Dolibor and Motivator tucked in behind.

This is when it’s good to remember that what is termed a “canter” at Newmarket is something rather quicker than a hack in Rotten Row. Woodcracker is transformed from a weary plodder into the live wire who followed his Nottingham success with a good effort at York and ended his season a touch prematurely beating one of the Queen’s horses a short head at Newmarket’s July meeting. We are winging along easily but Motivator still recedes away from us into the distance.

Walking back down for the second “canter” is to wonder why, with 10 miles of artificial tracks as well as twice that of grass gallops, quite so many of Newmarket’s 1800 horses seem to have chosen this same spot for exercise. But it makes for name spotting. The exercise sheets on the string ahead of us have “L.M.C” on the side and up with the leaders is a big horse with a matching night cap. It’s Luca Cumani’s new star recruit from Australia, their Derby champion Starcraft. Falbrav used to wear that night cap. It and its trainer know the way around.

Beside me is Chris Conway, at a craggy 58 he is in his fifth racing decade but still plays football keenly enough to be on a tour to Bratislava at Easter. Chris worked with Roy Thorpe and head man Richard Simpson at Jeremy Hindley’s but rode both 1,000 Guineas winner Waterloo and Arlington Million hero Teleprompter when returning to his native Yorkshire with Bill Watts at Richmond. “You know this horse has improved a lot,” he says indicating Motivator’s rippling backside up ahead, “last year his back was weak and he didn’t have any of that muscle you see now.”

What we see of Motivator on his second canter once again rockets into the distance. This time it is on the grass to the right of the artificial strips and the pace swings along quicker than before. Halfway up I pull Woodcracker out avoid the kick back and for a few thrilling lengths he lets himself stride as if that 12-1 was still on offer at Nottingham.

Walking back by the plantation there is a suggestion that the horse is blowing less than the jockey. Up front Motivator’s nostrils hardly tremble. Dalibor smiles contentedly and repeats his favourite word with deep Czech emphasis. “Strong,” he says.

By the time we reach St Mary’s the gold hands of the clock have reached 8-25. By the time Motivator gets back in his box it will have been almost an hour and a half of exercise. He will spend the rest of his day in his box. That’s the way it is with racehorses and when James Cronin comes in to groom him at 4-30 each evening he finds a very contented piece of horse.

“His coat has come on terrific,” says James with his native Dublin coming strong in the voice, “and he has muscled up so much that we have had to getter a bigger rug for him. He likes to play and growl at me when I do him over with a curry comb at night. But that’s him. People can see he is different. He has that swagger about him.”

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