The morning after

Racing Post, 6th June 2005

It was after midnight and the last Motivator replay had faded from the screen. “Time for bed,” said Michael Bell to his three children at Fitzroy House, “but remember the day, remember the day.” Motivator belonged to them too.

The horse himself had got back to his box at 8-30 pm and in the four hours since he crossed the line the sense of ownership had spread way out beyond those now famous Royal Ascot Racing Club members who had crowded the Epsom victory circle. But however proprietorial thousands of winning punters and millions of dazzled TV watchers might feel, it was at Newmarket that the event had marked most deeply. 

The Bell team were all in the pub just up from the High Street suitably named “The Yard.” Outside Roy “The Bombardier” Thorpe was on his mobile phone with a huge grin on his face. Inside James Cronin had a drink in his hand and an ear-to-ear smile which would be there for weeks. The pair had looked very different as they marched Motivator out of the racecourse stables and up the hill towards the paddock. Back then, they were ready for a fight.

It was that memory which stuck on Saturday night. In a minute the warm sea of celebration would toss us dizzily around the bar, but the mind flashed back to that Epsom moment as Roy and James set off for the reckoning. If they dithered and allowed Motivator to become fractious all that everyone had worked for could be lost. The next thirty minutes belonged to them. Roy had been in the Forces, James had twice climbed into the ring to win the Stable Lads Boxing Championship. This was their chance of history. They would not let it pass.

 Michael Bell had already played an ace by saddling Motivator in the quiet of the racecourse stables rather than in the teeming tumult of the paddock. The horse that walked up that hill looked as calm and hard and ready as you could want a runner to be. The colt that stalked in the parade was a coiled-up image of aggressive athlete but James Cronin’s right arm and Roy Thorpe’s left held him in a vice. When Johnny Murtagh finally cantered away, all Motivator’s extraordinary bubbling energy was intact.

 Down at the start Bell had a second calming ace in the craggy presence of Chris Conway complete with towel to wipe away any excess sweat. Not much of it was needed on Motivator but Alan Munro was happy to accept a wipe down on the lathered up Walk In The Park. Motivator was locked away early but thankfully Murtagh’s heart beat a lot slower than those of his horse’s supporters in the stand.

Back at Newmarket both head man Richard Simpson and exercise rider Shane Featherstonehaugh could scarce bear to watch. Over at the winning post James Cronin was walking about in a trance. When the race started and Murtagh parked himself up close third, the tension got even worse. The horse was going well but he was bound to be in front very soon. Past Hattan he went and eyes scanned for weakness and for pursuers. Eyes could not believe what they were seeing. The ultimate dream of all those mornings was bursting right into the very back of the retina. Motivator was not just going to win. He was taking the Derby apart.

 After the winning post the horses disappeared over the horizon. For a few brief moments there was empty grass and various Motivator team mates running up it. James Cronin was sobbing like a baby. Roy Thorpe came rushing across shouting “Jimmy, Jimmy, we did it boy. Wasn’t he awesome?” Big Dermot Barry the farrier scooped me up in his massive arms. A little figure hurtled across from the far side. Chris Conway had sprinted back from the start – not bad for a 59year old.

Then the actual participants were among us; Motivator blowing but not distressed, Johnny Murtagh smiling and serene, a man who had masterminded this victory from the moment he first took the saddle seven long weeks ago. There was much rejoicing and pressing of flesh. Michael Bell came up, his face lit with a happiness from deep within- a trainer who had set a shy at greatness and nailed the target in the bull. As Motivator was finally led into the winner’s enclosure, Dermot saw he had lost the plate on his off fore and the rest of us teased him relentlessly on how good the horse might be if he was ever properly shod.

Dermot was flying by the time we got back to “The Yard,” at Newmarket. So too were James Cronin’s parents, and Richard Simpson, and Chris Conway and Dave Murray and all the others there. Shane Featherstonehaugh had already left as had Michael Bell who had family mouths to feed in the local Chinese. Ed Dunlop was at the table and Kev “The Car” Williams. Darryl Holland was across the room. For a few days he had been part of the Motivator fairy tale. Now he has to file it only as one of the great “might have beens.”

It got late. Going to bed you still held the happiness in your head. In the morning you needed to get the papers to check it had actually happened. Better still – the ultimate privilege on a Derby morning after – walk out of the house, up through the yard, and there in his box was the Derby winner. And with him was a reality check called Dermot Barry.

“He’s just a bit sore,” said the farrier fitting a shoe to the offending hoof, “and the spots from those midge bites have come up bad on his back. He’s a very highly tuned athlete and that makes him very sensitive too.” On Motivator’s near side flank great blobs swelled like a heat rash where the saddle had been and a vein stood out against the skin. As he walked rather feelingly out on to the tarmac, the Derby winner looked something of a wreck.

But the moment passed. Assistant Amy Weaver took him over to crop grass in the meadow. With a shoe on he felt easier. The vet came to give him the cortisone injection he was unable to administer for the midge bites before racing. The horse cropped some more. He, like his supporters, was just tired and content. A team photo was agreed for 10-30 and we could return to debating with Dermot Barry whether the shoe was lost in mid race or, as all farriers insist, only after the race was won.

After  breakfast the sun came out and the phone and the fax began to flood. Johnny Murtagh rang to ask about the horse and his handlers. Hughie Morrison faxed with prices on to where M. Bell should re-locate following his statement that Motivator was “a horse who could change your address.” Photographer “By Appointment” Edward Whittaker arrived from the Cotswolds. The team gathered for the photo and 8 year old Lucy Simpson stuck her specially painted tribute to Motivator on his door.

They put the red sheet on him inscribed “Vodafone Derby Winner 2005.” Two dogs raced and fought and little Tom Simpson played with a hose pipe. Two years ago he had weighed just three pounds when poor Debbie was confined prematurely. Now he looks set to follow 13 year old Ross Simpson, just voted player of the season for the mighty Moulton Panthers.

The sun came out. It was a family affair. Michael and Georgie had Alex and Amy and Nick with them just as they had on Saturday. There were group photos, single photos, at one stage there was even a “Hack’s Photo” when I got my own shot for the album. Phrases like “he’s just unbelievable” “what’s going to beat him now” and “the guvnor seems keen on The Eclipse” floated around. We took turns to give Motivator a pat of thanks.

Which brings us back to gratitude. Michael Bell in his direct but unpompous way had said how “bloody lucky” they all were to have a horse like Motivator in their lives. It is not confined to him and his team. When racing gets it right it links direct into personal, professional and national heritage. The horse stands in the centre of it and you wonder how so simple and yet so marvelous a creature can bind so many strands together.

All of those around him know that they have climbed to the racing mountain top, that whatever else happens they will always have been part of a Derby winner. Whose horse is he? Thanks to them, he now belongs to all of us.

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