Graham Motion on History, Horses, Regulations, the Future, and Graham

December 31, 2019

Horse racing is a game of luck. On any given day, in any race the longshot can beat the favorite. For the trainers it’s more than luck. It’s conditioning and planning. What horse is ready physically and mentally to run in what race at what track? 

Trainer Graham Motion will tell you he’s had a lot of luck in his successful career. With Graham, it’s much more than luck. It’s consistency and a training philosophy that has taken him and his horses racing all over the country and all around the world. Graham will also tell you he doesn’t set goals for himself but rather “challenges” and he still has challenges he wishes to meet.

The Beginning 

Motion grew up at Herringswell Manor Stud, a boarding farm near Newmarket operated by his parents. Americans would stay with the Motions during the sales at Newmarket and Graham was fascinated by both America and horse racing. Motion’s first stateside trips were to Saratoga for the Fasig-Tipton sales which were much different from Newmarket. 

The family moved to upstate New York in 1980 when Motion’s father was hired to set up a stud farm. Sixteen and still in high school, Motion’s parents neither discouraged nor encouraged his interest in racing. But his fascination with racing was growing into a passion and the year after graduation in 1984, Graham went to France to work on a stud farm. 

The stud farm was not the challenge Motion desired so he sought his true calling as a trainer. Returning to the U.S. in 1985, his father Michael introduced him to champion steeplechase trainer Jonathan Sheppard who would become his mentor for the next five years. This would be Graham Motion’s “undergrad” education. 

Under Sheppard, Motion would achieve his young aspiration–to ride a racehorse. Motion had wanted to be a jockey. And now, although an inexperienced rider at the time, he began as an exercise rider. What’s more, under Sheppard, Motion would learn a sharp work ethic and the laid back European style of training, a more natural approach of pasture grazing, turnouts and trail rides–a method that gets horses to physically and mentally relax. It would be the philosophy that made Motion a horsemen’s trainer and attracted owners to his barn.

Sheppard put four-time steeplechase champion Flatterer in the care of Motion and they traveled all over the country and twice to Europe. Flatterer finished second in the 1987 Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham and the 1988 French Champion Hurdle. Then Sheppard sent Motion up to the Meadowlands to take care of a small group of horses to get experience trackside. It would be a different world from the stud farms and steeplechase world Motion had known but would set the course for his future. 

In 1990, Motion went back to France for a year to work with trainer Jonathan Pease. It was there he would meet his future wife and life-long business partner, Anita, who was working for Alain de Royer-Dupre. A year later, Graham and Anita would return to the U.S. and Motion would seek a career on the racetrack. 

The Early Years

Graham and Anita would land in Maryland in 1991 at the time when long-time trainer Bernie Bonds was looking for an assistant. Graham was about to begin his “graduate” work with the old master known for his aptitude with young horses and no nonsense approach. It would be this relationship that set the trajectory of Motion’s career. 

Bernie Bonds retired in 1993 dying soon after. At 29, Motion had basically run the operation for the ailing Bonds but was only listed as an assistant. After his passing, Bonds’ owners began to look elsewhere, except for Skip and Gertrude Leviton who saw something special in Motion. Skip Leviton paid him two months training fees up front because he knew Motion didn’t have the money to start on his own. The Levitons encouraged other owners to stay with Motion. 

With a small group of horses and owners, Motion set up his own racing operation at Laurel Park with Anita and long-time assistant and fellow Brit, Adrian Rolls. In their first year the team had a record of 113 starts with 21 wins, 12 seconds and 26 thirds with earnings of $396,724. One of those wins included their first graded stakes (Polynesian Handicap G3) with a horse that would set the course for the team’s future — a five-year-old Maryland bred named Gala Spinaway (Star Choice) owned by Gertrude Leviton. 

By 1996, Motion’s operation had earnings of $1.5 million and the confidence of more owners such as Pin Oak Stud, Augustin Stable, Flaxman Holdings, Live Oak Plantation, Brereton C. Jones, and Earle Mack. In 2001, Motion had more than doubled his earning to $3.2 million and was training stakes runners including Pin Oak’s graded stakes-winning and placed Broken Vow (Unbridled). 

Fair Hill

Motion would move his operation to Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, Md., in 2002 calling his operation Herringswell Stables after his parents’ stud operation in Cambridge. At Fair Hill yet another horse would come into Motion’s life to chart a new course. A three-year-old gelding named Better Talk Now (Talkin Man), affectionately called “Blackie” because of his deep, dark brown almost black coat.

Better Talk Now would take Motion and his team to the Breeders’ Cup for their first Turf Cup win in 2004 and he would run in the next four consecutive Turf Cups. In 2006, the seven-year-old gelding would just miss his second Turf Cup win by half a length behind Red Rocks (IRE) (Galileo {IRE}) at Churchill. Motion would collect three additional Breeders’ Cup wins with Shared Account in the Filly and Mare Turf in 2010, Main Sequence in the Turf Cup 2014 and Sharing, the daughter of Shared Account, in the Juvenile Fillies Turf in 2019. He would also have several other placed runners: Film Maker, second in the Filly and Mare Turf in 2004 and 2006 and third in 2005; Rebellion (GB), second in the Dirt Mile in 2008; Animal Kingdom, second in the Mile in 2012; and, Untamed Domain, second in the Juvenile Turf in 2017. 

With success and a relaxed European approach to training, Motion attracted many owners with top horses. His operation, once himself, Anita and assistant Adrian Rolls, had now grown to over 100 horses with the same number of employees. And his record of graded stakes winners grew as well with horses such as Film Maker (Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup G1), Miss Temple City (Shadwell Turf Mile G1), Ring Weekend (Frank E. Kilroe Mile G1), Irish War Cry (Wood Memorial G2, second in the Belmont), Bullsbay (The Whitney G1) and Animal Kingdom (Kentucky Derby, Dubai World Cup, second in the Preakness), a horse that would elevate Motion’s career beyond his imagination. 

With all of the success Graham Motion still keeps it to a simple routine. Every day there are horses to train for future races, horses to ship to run, sometimes at four or five different tracks on any given weekend. Owners need to be briefed, condition books reviewed, entries made, employees managed and for all of this Graham still relies on Anita and Adrian but with a team of trusted assistants. 

Rather than traveling to one of the tracks, Motion usually prefers to remain at the barn tending to the daily training, tomorrow’s set list and review his runners on TV. And Tweet a little.

The Interview 

Maribeth Kalinich: Thank you for speaking with me today. You’re a trainer I’ve followed since you started in Maryland.

Graham Motion: Kind of quiet time for us. It’s a good time. December is pretty quiet, actually refreshing.

MK: You’ve had quite a career, Graham. You’ve had some really amazing horses. Congratulations on your Breeders Cup win with Sharing.

GM: That was fun. We’ve been very fortunate, very lucky.

MK: You’ve been very lucky but you’ve also been extremely consistent in your training, conditioning and planning. How exciting was it to win with the daughter of Shared Account?

GM: It’s very exciting, It’s exciting to get to the Breeders’ Cup over the last 15 years since we first ran one. I was lucky enough to be able to go back so to go with a really nice contender, and for her to be the daughter of a previous winner, is very gratifying.

MK: Your first Breeders’ Cup runner was Better Talk Now, that was in 2004?

GM: That’s right. That was Ramon [Dominguez] and my first Breeders’ Cup winner. So that was a big deal for both of us.

MK: I’m sure, and Blackie [Better Talk Now’s barn name] meant a lot to you. He was a very special horse for you.

GM: No doubt. He definitely took my operation to a different level after winning a Breeders’ Cup. I certainly earned people’s respect and that’s what enabled them to send me nice horses.

MK: Oh that’s true, it gives a different perspective of your barn and owners have more confidence in your skills.

GM: They do. They do

MK: He was an iron horse. He raced until he was 10.

GM: He did. He raced in the Breeders’ Cup five years in a row, I believe. Pretty remarkable and he came close to winning it a second time at Churchill. That was one of my, not big disappointments, but had he won that he would have really gone down in the record books. To win two Breeders’ Cups, that’s pretty unusual.

MK: That would have been amazing. He was second.

GM: He was second. He really just ran out of racing room, ran out of ground. He was coming and coming but just couldn’t get to Red Rocks (IRE).

MK: It was an amazing effort.

GM: No doubt it was.

MK: He had so much heart. I think he was an underrated horse because to look at his record. He owned the Sword Dancer. He absolutely owned that race.

GM: I think he won all but one of the Grade 1s, in his category, all but one of the Grade 1 races in New York. I agree, to me he was a somewhat underrated horse for what he achieved.

MK: The Manhattan and Sword Dancer were definitely his races. To win the Manhattan at 8. When I reviewed his record I was just astounded.

Now he did start later than most horses but for this horse that worked. People talk about horses starting as 2-year-olds. In your opinion is that arbitrary? Depends on the horse?

GM It’s important if you’re looking to make a stallion they have to have big accomplishments as 2-year-olds, that plays into it but I think longevity in a horse’s career probably benefits from not starting so early.

MK: And you also had Gala Spinaway. You lost him this year. I’m so sorry about that. He was your first graded stakes winner.

GM: There were three horses that put me on the map, and Gala Spinaway was the first one. My first big stakes winner, first graded stakes winner and, again, that’s a horse that gave people confidence to send me nice horses. I sort of owe my career to him till now and, of course, Animal Kingdom took me to the next level.

MK: Of course Animal Kingdom. He gave you the Derby. How exciting was that? That’s an understatement.

GM: It’s not something I expected to win in my training career but it was obviously very special. Getting back to Gala Spinaway, he was a horse that was in my barn when I first started. He was very special to my wife because she got on him during his rehab period which was when I first started training. So he was a horse that, albeit apart from a few years, spent most of his life with us. Except for a few years when he was passed on to an event rider and then eventually he came back to us. He lived out his years at Fair Hill. He was a very special horse to us. My wife really took care of him.

MK: Oh that’s wonderful. That was probably Anita’s Heart Horse. Did he come from Bernie Bonds stable?

GM:  Yes, he was actually injured when I first started training him so my wife was with him at Glade Valley, at the layup farm.

MK: That’s amazing. I think that’s why fans are drawn to you. You have that kind of connection. You and your family, Anita, have that kind of connection with your horses.

GM: I hope so. We’ve been around so long and people are aware of the horses. That horse was remarkable, he started my whole career. Obviously it was pretty sad to lose him last year. 

MK: Well to see that, to see that you basically inherited him from the Bond Barn and Anita nursed him back to health, you were successful with him and you had him his whole life shows what an owner/trainer relationship with a horse should be In my opinion. 

Now last weekend you raced at four different race tracks. That’s a lot of responsibility. How do you keep so many things in your head in one day? How do you do that? I always wondered how trainers accomplished this.

GM: I think it’s something at Fair Hill we get used to doing because every time we race obviously we’re having to ship. It’s not like being on the racetrack. Basically our operation is geared to handle it. It’s probably an overused adage but I have very good help. You cannot operate on that scale without having top assistants you have confidence in. On any given weekend we frequently run at four or five different tracks. I need people who can go to different locations and it’s something we’re geared to do.

MK: So right now you’ve got it down to a routine.

GM: Pretty much. I’ve had assistants who have been with me a long time. I’m really fortunate I have three, four top assistants. Adrian [Rolls], my main assistant has been with me since we started. When I first started training it was Adrian, my wife and I. We have that kind of relationship with the people that work for me.

MK: How many people do you have working in your barn? Do you have three barns now at Fair Hill?

GM: I have two barns at Fair Hill so in the summer when we’re at our max we’re up to about 120 horses and a small group at the track as well so we have close to 100 employees in the summer. Winter we’re down significantly about 70-80 horses. When the 2-year-olds come in it fills up again.

MK: So you’re racing some 2-year-olds now. They come in the spring?

GM: Usually they come in first of May. Some come in a little earlier than that but the first of May is my usual guideline, actually when I like to start.

MK: Start prepping them for the futurities in the late summer.

GM: Sure, absolutely.

MK: When you break that maiden on that 2-year-old is that as fulfilling as winning that first stakes? Or is that not even close?

GM: It’s a lot of fun bringing 2-year-olds up and along. The most remarkable thing is, for example, Sharing, a filly like her, who showed abilities in the beginning and she’s changed so much from the summer till now. Seeing them grow up like that, it’s a really fun part of it.

I’m a really big believer that some of the 2-year-olds might be better as 2-year-olds. Some don’t train on to be better older horses so you have to figure out which ones handle the different ages better than others.

MK: You had Edgar Prado on a 3-year-old filly last weekend, Fritzi, and she broke her maiden on second asking and seems on the charts to be pretty good.

GM: She is. I was a little surprised she didn’t run better her first time out at Aqueduct but she made up for it the other day and it was great to have Edgar back on one.

MK: Yes, Edgar rode your Breeders Cup winner.

GM: Yes, he rode Shared Account.

MK: You and Edgar go back, he was starting in Maryland when you were coming up as a trainer.

GM: Pretty much. You know, back in the day, It was hard to get Edgar. He was just beginning and he was very popular and had just moved to Maryland and we’ve had a relationship ever since then going on 25 years now.

MK: He’s an amazing jockey and a very good person. A real credit to the industry.

You won the Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom. Was that the pinnacle of your career? Was Animal Kingdom your pinnacle horse? Is the Derby the race that every trainer wants to win?

GM: No doubt it’s the race I think everybody wants to win, every trainer aspires to win. I never set that as a goal for myself. I don’t think it’s a realistic goal. You have to be so lucky to have a 3-year-old to get to the Derby to be that one horse who wins on that Saturday so obviously it was something I never expected to do. 

To me, something that was almost more rewarding, and his whole career was a highlight for me, but winning the [Dubai] World Cup when you come back from two injuries and it had taken two years of planning to sort of get him there so for him to perform his best on that day for the World Cup was incredibly gratifying obviously and financially very rewarding. The Derby was more of having the right horse at the right time, while I was lucky to have that, the World Cup took two years of Barry Irwin and my planning to get him there and was very fulfilling.

MK: The World Cup was strategic planning and the Derby was the perfect storm.

GM: I think it’s a fair way to put it. We didn’t know that he was going to be good enough to win the Derby. We’d never run him on the dirt so how well could we know? He was that good of a horse.

MK: A lot of your top wins have been on turf. Are you more of a turf specialist?

GM: Better Talk Now sort of helped put me on the map. No doubt that became somewhat of a specialty for me but I think statistically when you look at our 2-year-olds running on the dirt and Kentucky Derby for example, we’ve had Grade 1 winners on the dirt but there’s no doubt that I’m probably more recognized as a turf trainer and I’m fine with that.

MK: What’s the difference between American and European racing?

GM: How long have you got?

MK: How long have you got?

[Laughter]

GM: It’s so different. It’s hard to compare. 

MK: Apples and oranges.

GM: Very much. After taking a horse to Ascot to run I appreciate how different and how difficult it is and I think of the things on my bucket list. I’ve been fortunate to achieve a lot of my goals, or a lot of big successes. To go to Europe to win a race would be very, would be something high on my priorities now, probably because it’s such a challenge to do. I have a lot of respect for Wesley [Ward] who has gone over and done it quite frequently now. 

MK: What did you think of Animal Kingdom going to Japan?

GM: It’s disappointing for me mainly because I’d like to have him here, for selfish reasons and obviously financial reasons. I had breeding rights but I certainly understand the move and I hope he’s very successful over there. The Japanese are very smart breeders. I have every reason to think they will be successful. They know what they’re doing. I’m surprised he hasn’t had more success here but he’s only a relatively young stallion. I think his progeny tend to get better as they get older.

MK: Do you think some horses are retiring a little too young?

GM: People have to make it work financially. If a horse can be a stallion people have to support what they’re doing. I sympathize with people retiring some of these horses earlier if they’re going to have more success in the breeding shed. It’s perfectly understandable. It’s all very well that we want to keep horses on the track but it’s an expensive business and these owners have got to make it viable. 

MK: What do you think is the most important change that American horse racing needs to make right now? 

GM: The medication changes are a high priority. That’s something that’s had a lot of attention. The policies, how far out from a race a horse can be treated and race day medication. Unfortunately, when we’re trying to give good perception of the industry it’s very hard when people see race horses are being treated with medication on race day. People can say all they like but ultimately the public doesn’t understand the need to treat horses and we need to get away from that. I firmly believe that. I believe it’s imperative we go that route.

MK: No medication on race day. No Lasix? Nothing?

GM: No. Not because I’m anti-Lasix. I do believe Lasix helps horses but the perception that an athlete needs medication to run is not something people are prepared to accept in this day and age.

MK: How do you think we can convey this to mainstream media and get around the optics of what’s been presented this year?

GM: I think that’s a big start. We cannot argue, we cannot defend our sport if we are medicating horses. It doesn’t work. It is the first argument that comes back to you. Why are horses getting medicated? You can’t argue your case because of circumstances. So that’s the first step. 

MK: So everything else is secondary, surface …

GM: Yes, it actually is. 

MK: That’s a really good point but how do we change the optics? How do we get the message out there? I’m sure you agree we need some sort of unification but how do we get the public relations to change? What organization is out there to convey this message?

GM: We have organizations. We have the NTRA but I don’t think they’ve been using them effectively. And we need to do better as a sport to have a voice for our sport. We’re never going to have a governing body. It’s not going to happen because of the complications of interstate gambling and I think we realize that but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a national body that can handle our statement, that we can turn to as an industry for advice whether it’s for stewarding or whether it’s for a racetrack. We need someone we can go to and say “how do we handle this?” or “can you help us with that?” We need a strong group that’s going to be able to do that for us and I think that’s a very important factor. Because the idea of having a commissioner is probably as much of a fantasy as it would be a good thing. 

MK: So the commissioner’s never going to happen. We’ll always have the 38 jurisdictions.

GM: Because of the interstate gambling, my understanding is it’s very unlikely to be achieved so we need to come up with an alternative and having something like the NTRA, giving them a little bit more strength to be a better voice for us. It’s very important.

MK: I always thought the NTRA was supposed to be the voice for us.

GM: It is our voice. I think it needs to be louder.

MK: Do you think if race day medication is eliminated it will weed out the bad elements in the industry?

GM: It’s important we run a tight ship. It’s important to our industry. It will be important along with stricter medication rules that there has to be stricter security on the racetrack. They go hand in hand. One doesn’t work without the other.

MK: The absolute insurer rule? Should that be abolished? I know you had an incident in Kentucky where the constitutionality of this was brought up.

GM: It’s ongoing so it’s a little bit hard for me to talk about. It’s complicated. Obviously, as trainers, we do have to be held responsible but we also have to be helped by the organizations. The problem I have with the medication issues is that we need to be advised every time we leave a state and go to a different state. There are different rules. That’s extremely complicated. People outside the game don’t understand that. 

Instead of having these commissions and agencies working against us they should be helping us. They should be advising us. I should be able to go to them and say I need help. The concept you don’t medicate horses is absurd. Horses get hurt, horses get sick, horses need to be medicated. We’re not just talking about medications to race on. We’re talking about giving a horse a shot of penicillin. We should be able to go to the agency and say…

I remember a long time ago Todd Pletcher had a positive for penicillin in the Breeders’ Cup. Now, Todd is not going to treat his horse with penicillin to take an edge. Clearly that was a misunderstanding. It should never have happened. Somehow he should have been protected. Maybe that’s not a good example but this is something as trainers that we have to deal with every day and it doesn’t get any better. It just seems to get more complicated. 

MK: The fact that testing is so sensitive and with 38 jurisdictions. I don’t understand how trainers can handle it. It’s just too much.

GM: This is my other beef. The testing is incredibly sensitive and that is a really good thing. I have no problem with that but in return to us as trainers the facilities  that we take our horses to on race day should be absolutely immaculate. The facilities where our blood tests are handled should be immaculate. There should be guys with white gloves and white jackets handling our samples because the testing is so sensitive.

Once the racetrack improves in handling these things better, at that point we have less of an argument for contamination as a trainers because, you cannot tell me, and I’ve been told this by some of these jurisdictions, you cannot tell me there is no contamination, it’s not fair. It’s not reasonable. It’s not rational. Look at the case in California recently.

MK: In your case, you stopped the medication seven days out.

GM: My case, we followed the advice we were given, the recommendations very strictly. Not only that we doubled the time they recommended. So it seems unfair that I get tripped up by the system. That’s the problem I have.

MK: Aftercare. You obviously take responsibility. In the industry, in general, whose responsibility is it? Is it the owner?

GM: It’s all of our responsibility. We’re all benefiting from the horse. In the last five, ten years aftercare has come a long way. We’ve made huge strides.

MK: There should be contributions from every level. So it should be from the trainer to the owners to the purse …

GM: Everyone who benefits from the horses has a hand in the aftercare without exception. The jockey, the racetrack, the owner, the breeder, everybody. We all benefit from the horses, we all need to take care of them when their career is over. 

MK: Do you have an opinion on Santa Anita and what they could do to possibly turn the optics of that around?

GM: I think they’re doing the very best they can. They did a tremendous job with the Breeders’ Cup. It’s a terrible shame that a horse got hurt but it just goes to show, unfortunately, it’s not a perfect world that we live in and horses, like athletes, are going to get hurt. But the scrutiny given to the horses in the Breeders’ Cup was something I’ve never seen before.

MK: It would have been nice if the press had focused on that rather than the issue that happened at the end.

GM: I’m afraid we’re under the spotlight. It’s very hard in this day and age, people are drawn by the “brightest light.” 

Something that clearly, on that weekend, everybody was hoping it would be perfect. It was close to being a perfect weekend. I don’t hold anyone responsible. It’s not fair to hold anyone responsible. It was a terrible thing. And it just goes to show no matter how hard we try horses are going to get hurt. Just like human athletes. Every Sunday on the football field players get hurt. Horses cannot recover like human athletes. It’s a complicated issue but we’re never going to have a perfect world where horses are not going to get hurt. We just need to handle it the very best we can and we’re making strides to do that.

MK: What are your thoughts about consolidation of racetracks, supertracks, sports betting coming to tracks, the future? How does this affect the trainer? 

GM: I don’t know enough about the sports betting to comment on it. I think that we are going to see less racetracks. The foal crops are smaller. It’s just a sign of the times. Something that happens in a lot of businesses, industries and sports. Things are consolidating. 

MK: How does that affect the trainer?

GM: It’s definitely going to affect some trainers. But I’ve always been a big believer in the fact that not everybody should be able to be a trainer. I think it’s a privilege to be a trainer. Like any sport or any business you have to make it work. I’m fortunate that I’ve had success but I don’t think anyone should be handed a trainer’s license and expect that they’re going to make it work. That’s not how life works. I feel very fortunate to be a trainer. I feel it’s a privilege to have a trainer’s license. I really do. 

MK: What’s your opinion of fans arguing on social media?

GM: If you’re going to get on social media you have to be prepared to take it. No one requires you to go on social media so you have to be prepared to face the consequences. I certainly do.

MK: I’m certainly guilty of arguing, too. I do like your motto “I will not just stick to racing.” And I appreciate your candor and your time.

Photo Courtesy Graham Motion

Contributing Authors

MB Kalinich

Maribeth Kalinich is a racing enthusiast and historian who writes about current racing events, Thoroughbred history and preservation of historic racing sites. Growing up in...

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