Excerpted From March 2011 Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred Magazine With Permission
As a responsible owner, Gil Johnston goes out of her way to secure happy homes and second careers for her retired race horses.
“All of my horses – and I’ve had plenty of them – are kind of like my children,” she said.
In late 2008, when the time came for Johnston’s smallish dark bay Cozzene gelding named Orpington to transition to a new profession, finding the right situation for him was a no-brainer.
The former Graham Motion charge had long been a favorite of the trainer’s young niece, Mary Motion.
Named for the village in England where Johnston grew up, Orpington was purchased from the Lambholm consignment at the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic 2-year-olds in training sale in 2003. He broke his maiden in his first start at Gulfstream Park early in 2004 and won four races in two seasons under Motion’s guidance. Johnston then sent the Florida-bred son of the Afleet mare Tina Fleet to steeplechase trainer Jack Fisher.
“We ran him over jumps for a few years and he was fairly successful,” Johnston said.
Mary Motion continued to monitor the horse’s progress over hurdles.
“One day at the Middleburg races we heard that Orpington was going to be down there with Jack, so we went to say hi,” Motion recalled. “Jack said that if I wanted to [lead him to the paddock] in the race I could, and he ended up winning. So that was kind of the start of my job with Jack and my relationship with Orpi.”
Mary is holding the shank in both of Orpington’s jump win photos.
“If Mary ran him, he won,” Johnston said. “She became my good luck charm. We took him down to Kentucky Downs [in September 2008] and he didn’t run at all well,” she went on. “So I sked Karen Gray to take him back to their place in Tennessee, and I was going to go pick him up. I left him there for about 10 days, and the next thing I heard was that [Gray’s husband] Johnny Gray was out hunting hounds on him. And I thought, ‘Well here’s a horse who was racing two weeks ago, and he’s turned right around and is hunting hounds.’ He’s a really sweet character.”
Facing the starter’s flag just one more time, at Palm Beach in November 2008 in a race won by Slip Away, Orpington faded and was pulled up. Shortly thereafter Mary’s father, Andrew Motion, contacted Johnston and asked if she’d sell Orpington to him for Mary.
“I said that I wouldn’t sell him but that I’d be thrilled for Mary to have him,” Johnston said. “And Jack Fisher was kind enough to give him a free ride back to Maryland.” After agreeing on a price of one dollar, Johnston happily sent Orpington on his way to his unsuspecting new owner.
In a world-class display of subterfuge, Andrew Motion hid the horse in brother Graham’s barn at Fair Hill Training Center before bringing him home to his 50-acre Old Chapel Farm in Bluemont, Va., in time to surprise his youngest daughter on Christmas morning.
“On Christmas I went downstairs and Janie [stepmother Janie Covington] and Dad had tied a bow to the Christmas tree with a card on it. It went all the way from the living room window down to the barn,” Mary recalls. Still in pajamas, Mary and older sister Lillibet followed the cord to the stall where Orpington stood sporting a big red bow on his halter. “I’d had no idea at all that I might be getting him!” Mary said.
Both Motion girls are gifted riders who were in the saddle nearly before they could walk. “It was much easier than carrying the child around,” Andrew Motion laughed. “It was easier to put Mary on a pony, especially when her big sister was already riding and going to horse shows.”
After years in the show ring and in pony races at hunt meets, Mary’s skill and patience have been the perfect complement to Orpington’s natural talent. Under the tutelage of Fisher and Kinross Farm’s Neil Morris, Mary and Orpington were undefeated in 11 races in 2009 and 2010, including back-to-back victories in the Pennsylvania Junior Hunt Cup.
For proud papa Andrew Motion, it’s a thrill that never gets old.
“I’m a horseperson, but I don’t ride the way these kids do; they can ride circles around me. So usually I am Dad/groom/support team,” he said. Grandparents Michael and Jo Motion also try make it to most of the meets. The black and yellow silks that Mary wears were worn by Jo Motion as an amateur steeplechase rider in Newmarket, England, and then by Graham Motion in his brief career as a jump rider while working for Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard.
Mary, who turned 16 on March 3, is excitedly looking forward to her first season in point-to-point races with Orpington.
“The jumps are bigger but I think Orpi will be fine,” she said.
Asked about her long-range ambitions, she said, “I’d like to go over to England and work for trainers over there; maybe even go to Ireland too.” Andrew Motion reminded his daughter of the goal she listed on her riding application to Foxcroft School.
“Oh yeah,” she grinned. “I’d also like to win the Maryland Hunt Cup before I graduate.”