Sometimes in life, it is the quiet, unassuming person who really shocks you.
In Graham Motion’s case, he stunned the racing world twice on its grandest stage.
Motion’s first jaw-dropper came in 2004, when Better Talk Now defeated eventual champion turf male Kitten’s Joy to win the John Deere Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) at Lone Star Park at odds of 27.90-to-1.
He struck again this year at odds of 46-to-1 with Shared Account, who turned back defending winner Midday (GB) to take home the top prize in the Emirates Airline Breeders Cup Filly and Mare Turf (G1) at Churchill Downs.
Motion, 46, said it is difficult to compare the two Breeders’ Cup victories because they came at completely different stages in his training career. Better Talk Now propelled Motion into the national spotlight and helped to ignite his career.
“That was the first year we ran in the Breeders’ Cup, and it was all so new to us,” he said. “I think since then I’ve always wanted to get back. A lot of people dream of getting to the Derby every year but, to me, every year has been geared toward hopefully getting to the Breeders’ Cup.
“I think Breeders’ Cup races, or races like the Breeders’ Cup races, are the races that are defining moments and what you’re remembered for, so it’s a big deal to me.
”The Breeders’ Cup was just the start of a stellar month and, really, a banner year for the Cambridge, England, native. He won the Mrs. Revere Stakes (G3) with Aruna on November 20 at Churchill and added the Matriarch Stakes (G1) to his ledger with Gypsy’s Warning (SAf) six days later at Hollywood Park.
For the year, Motion has nine gradedstakes victories and three Grade 1 wins, both career bests for a season since he took out his trainer’s license in 1993. Check the Label’s Garden City Stakes (G1) victory in September at Belmont Park was his other top-level victory.
“Certainly, from a Grade 1 point of view, I don’t think I’ve ever won three Grade 1s in a year,” said Motion, whose father, Michael, was an international bloodstock agent, and mother, Jo, was an amateur jockey and assistant trainer. “The Matriarch is a race that has a lot of prestige behind it as well as the Breeders’ Cup, so it’s been a very pleasant turnaround in the fall.”
Motion also was named the trainer for Barry Irwin’s Team Valor International stable, one of the most successful collections of partnership-owned racehorses and a consistent source of elite global talent.
“The thing about Graham is he’s got a proper education,” Irwin said. “He’s a very smart guy—he’s not just your average guy you see walking down the shedrow—and he’s got large intellectual capacity. You can talk to him. He reasons things out well, he’s got a great temperament, and he just fits well with me.”
Slow start to season
Despite the flashy finish to 2010, Motion’s storybook season also had its share of disappointments, beginning with a sluggish start in which he entered the final weekend in May with only two stakes wins.
He started to pick up some steam during the Saratoga Race Course meeting, but Shared Account came up a head short to Proviso (GB) in the Diana Stakes (G1) and Silver Reunion was edged by a half-length in the Ballston Spa Stakes (G2), two wins that would have made the Spa meeting quite a bit more memorable.
“You go through that every year as a trainer,” he said. “There is no doubt that every year at some point I have a lull. I mean it’s extraordinary in this game how cyclical it is.
“It is very easy to question yourself when things aren’t going so well, but you really have to keep your head down and keep doing things the way you always do them because, eventually, you pull out of it.
”Motion said he thinks his Herringswell Stable barn gained momentum during the fall meeting at Keeneland Race Course, where he amassed eight wins (third in the trainer standings), seven seconds, and six thirds from 33 starters.
“I think it’s somewhat by design in the way we do things,” said Motion, who was quick to credit longtime assistants Adrian Rolls and David Rock. “I don’t think that we really push our horses early in the year because we feel like most of the big races are in the fall, and that’s when I want to be in the shake-up.”
Building a foundation
That philosophy of targeting specific races comes directly from one of the major influences in Motion’s life, Racing Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard. Motion’s first true apprenticeship came on Sheppard’s Pennsylvania farm, where he spent about six years and learned lessons he continues to apply today.
“To me, Jonathan has got to be one of the all-time great trainers,” Motion said. “So many of us these days get horses fit through racing, whereas Jonathan gets them fit for a race. He’s very much a horseman’s trainer, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that here we are with a barn full of graded stakes, grass fillies, which is something he always did so well with.
Motion worked for Sheppard while he trained Grade 1 winner Storm Cat, one of the most influential sires of the last 25 years, and four-time champion steeplechaser Flatterer.
“I do hope that [I had an influence], at least by example, and I’ve always been approachable,” Sheppard said. “He actually lived in my house for two or three years, had a room in the house where my wife and my children all lived, and he would see me sitting up there, eight, nine, ten at night and going through my workbooks and talking to owners … and hopefully some of that rubbed off.”
Sheppard said that during a meeting with Motion’s parents he also tried to direct their son to challenge himself in new ways and spend some time on the racetrack, an area which Sheppard always felt was a void on his own résumé.
“I said, ‘What Graham needs to do—he’s been hanging around at these steeplechase meets, which to some extent is a bit of a social atmosphere, you know, with his nice tweed jacket and cap—he needs to get a job in the real world. Maybe he should get a job down in Maryland in the winter, standing horses in ice and knee bandages and whirlpools, and figuring out how to keep an old horse sound, and having to go to work when the track’s closed, and figuring out how to do all that kind of stuff.’ ”
Motion first went to work for highly regarded French trainer Jonathan Pease and continued to build his training foundation at Chantilly. While there, he also connected with a woman who would become the foundation of his personal life, his wife, Anita, with whom he now has two children, Jane and Marcus.
When Motion returned to the U.S. in 1990, he took Sheppard’s advice and went to work as an assistant to Bernie Bond at Laurel Park, an apprenticeship that really helped broaden his horizons and paved the way for him to go out on his own. Bond was a top Maryland trainer renowned for his aptitude with two-year-olds.
“I had never worked at a racetrack when I went to work for Bernie, and he taught me so much,” Motion recalled. “I don’t think I’d ever clocked a horse before I worked for Bernie, and all of the sudden it became all about the racetrack. That’s an important part of what we do and something I needed to learn.”
The learning curve changed quickly when Bond was forced to retire in January 1993 because of declining health and died the following month. Two of Bond’s owners stuck with Motion, and he went out on his own, securing his first stakes win and graded stakes win with one of Bond’s horses, Gala Spinaway, who now lives at Fair Hill with his chum Better Talk Now.“
You never quite know how people are going to do on their own because some people have unsuspected qualities that, until they are put to the test, you don’t really see,” Sheppard said when asked about Motion’s success. “He’s a pretty quiet and unassuming type of a person, and I didn’t know whether he had the resourcefulness and the toughness to make it on his own or not. “
I think in all walks of life, in order to be successful, you have to be presented with an opportunity. Then it’s up to you. … He was presented with the opportunity and he sure made the most of it.”—Mike Curry