5 June 2005
He proved even better than they had dared to hope. Ever since Motivator bolted home in his first race last August, the Michael Bell team have dreamed of what might happen when he was asked the question in the Epsom straight. A full two furlongs from home Motivator gave his answer. It ranks him among the most brilliant of Derby winners.
There were five long lengths back to the French fireball Walk In The Park, a further three to a frustrated Frankie Dettori on gallant little Dubawi. Next came Fracas running past Kieren Fallon’s ride Gypsy King, long-time leader Hattan was sixth, Unfurled seventh, The Geezer eighth and poor old Kong posted 13th and last place after First Row was withdrawn at the start. Those are the facts but a good Derby deals in magic too.
Somewhere within a champion there is a spark that the others don’t possess. Many times you may think you see it in a horse’s early days. Sometimes it actually emerges on a racecourse. Very, very occasionally it gathers flame into a raging furnace of a talent that burns down the stockades that guard the gates to greatness. Sixteen years into his training career Michael Bell believed he had found that spark in Motivator. For him and his team these last 10 months have been the most testing and fulfilling of their lifetimes. They believed they just might have a superstar. Yesterday was the glorious proof that they were right.
Since January it has been my monthly privilege to log the Derby favourite’s progress. It has been the most enjoyable and illuminating experience of my career as a journalist. For the spark in Motivator is fairly close to the surface and in other hands, with another groom, another daily exercise rider, a more rowdy stable, Motivator’s highly-charged temperament could have boiled over at home let alone on the racecourse.
But from Michael Bell himself, to head man Richard Simpson, to groom James Cronin, to daily rider Shane Featherstonehaugh, to farrier Dermot Barry, to the soon-to- retire travelling supremo Roy Thorpe, there has been a commitment to calmness as well as scrupulous detail that has been a joy to observe.
As the big day got closer, the doubts grew in the mind. Would Motivator cope with the razzmatazz? Would he handle the helter-skelter of the track? Would a horse described by his trainer as “having speed to burn” really last out this most demanding mile and a half of them all? At 3.55 pm, Cronin and Thorpe marched Motivator out of the stables. The horse held his head firm and steady. As he walked away you saw the gleam of his skin, the hard muscle lines on his quarters. He might buzz a bit in the next few minutes but you realised that this was a challenger ready for the ring, that 300 years of breeding might not be in vain.
For Motivator is a running machine. He jigged a bit as he left the paddock. As Cronin and Thorpe led him on the parade you could see some plumes of sweat creaming beneath the saddle cloth. The horse was tense but not trembling. In the saddle Johnny Murtagh had his hands forward in a short hold of the reins. Two minutes later he was hacking off up to the start. The first big hurdle was over.
The next two, handling the contours of the course and staying the distance, were tackled even more directly. Knowing Motivator’s natural speed, Murtagh jumped him with the leaders, settled his partner in close third behind the pacemaking Almighty and Hattan and sailed round Epsom’s contours as if he was one of the roller-coaster cars at the Epsom funfair. But Almighty was weakening before Tattenham Corner. Motivator was therefore going to turn into the straight in second place. He was bound to be in front very early. For a horse with his unproven stamina this would surely be too soon.
Oh we of little faith. Murtagh could sense what was beneath him. He has already ridden Sinndar and High Chaparral to Derby glory. He shortened up the reins and gave Motivator a flick with his whip. Far from flinching the colt punched clear in glorious answer. We looked back for closing dangers. Pursuers came there none.
Motivator is just a three-year-old horse who can run faster than the others. But for those close to him, for those who have backed him, for anyone who can thrill to the sight of a star in the making, he was something more. He was the dream that only a Derby can bring. Even as a mere chronicler the pleasure was overwhelming. I somersaulted over the rails and legged it down the course. Cronin is a tough guy from Dublin but he was crying like a baby. Chris Conway is the oldest footballer in Newmarket but like Thorpe and Simpson has been with Bell’s Fitzroy House stables almost from the very beginning. Motivator and Murtagh came back towards them. They clutched the jockey and the horse and each other. Happiness is a Derby winner.
At that moment they were celebrating their moment in racing history. In the hangover of this morning there will be the challenge of something else. The Bell team and the management of easy moving Harry Herbert and super shrewd John Warren have achieved one of the greatest coups racing has to offer. Yet there is still an Irish Derby and an Arc and the whole of next season ahead. This was an extraordinary day. But for the team landing its first Classic, it could be the start of something even bigger yet.