To Settle: Graham Motion’s Turf Philosophy in Patience

Sharing (left) works on Saturday, Nov. 21 at the Turf Course at Fair Hill . (Photo credit: MAGGIE KIMMITT)
Sharing (left) works on Saturday, Nov. 21 at the Turf Course at Fair Hill . (Photo credit: MAGGIE KIMMITT)

On Friday afternoon, as the sun began to pierce the western horizon headed towards more work elsewhere, trainer Graham Motion stepped patiently, yet confidently. He had his head down, looking, and simultaneously feeling the contours of the elegantly laid Turf Course at Fair Hill near Elkton, Maryland.

The massive project was recently completed, and the Tuckahoe Dry Vans had long returned home to their yard after completing the last delivery of Kentucky Bluegrass mix. The sculpted banks of the course formed a green wave of sod that rolled gently along. Make no mistake though, these curves are deceptively austere. It is like combining the mental rigor of Augusta’s Amen Corner with the in-game pressure of catching a pass in Notre Dame Stadium’s fabled End Zone. Fair Hill’s precision pitches are intended to present a major challenge to any Thoroughbred that dares. Into the final stretch, a European-style ½ mile ascent will test a runner’s great set of louvered lungs, as they are encouraged by their exercise rider.

Motion was not out for a brisk jaunt that day, although anytime he can be on a racecourse made of turf, he is pleased. He was there testing the ground, ensuring that it was suitable for an important impending workout that was scheduled for the next morning. At the conclusion of the pacing, he was more than satisfied; surprised that after a good bit of rain over the past month that the conditions could be listed as “near firm” in his mind. The work tab for the next day was a go.

As a trainer, racing Thoroughbreds on the grass at route distances has become his forte. It is in his blood—maybe with a partial transfusion. Over a career that has spanned nearly four decades, Motion has risen to the very top echelons of the sport. He is not finished; not by a longshot. Under his care have been some of America’s marquee turf horses which include Better Talk Now (who won the BC Turf with Ramón Dominguez aboard), Film Maker, Shared Account, Main Sequence, Miss Temple City, Ring Weekend, and last but certainly not least, a Kentucky Derby-Dubai World Cup Champion on dirt you might have heard of named, Animal Kingdom. Last year, he had Breeders’ Cup success once again in the Juvenile Fillies Turf, when Sharing roared down the lane for the victory.  

When we spoke by telephone, he had finished his survey of the new turf course just across the road from the Fair Hill Training Center, which is just a stone’s throw from the fabled demarcated Mason-Dixon Line in Pennsylvania. This has been his base of operations since 2002, though the name of his stable, Herringswell, is an homage to his roots and parents’ operation in Newmarket, England where his father worked as an international bloodstock agent.

Located in the heart of Maryland Thoroughbred country, the new turf track was renovated this year with funds allocated from the state. They spearheaded the transformation of this course that has the flexibility to host different types of equestrian events. The Turf Course is just one segment of the Special Event Zone at Fair Hill Natural Resources Management Area in Cecil County. Running congruently, the Fair Hill Foundation is leading a charge to raise private funding. Their goal is to match the state’s $20 million endeavor with what they call, Proud Past – Infinite Future, The Campaign for Fair Hill.

Both entities understand the significant landscape geographical history that whispers throughout the site. The du Pont Family, major equine infrastructure investors in the Mid-Atlantic, had the track laid back in the 1930s. It became the home for the well-known festival of the same name—the Fair Hill Races. When I asked Motion what he thought of the venture by the state, he enthusiastically endorsed its development when he said, “This is a major improvement that is just remarkable.”

Motion’s demeanor and his approach to racing on grass is both unique and specific. Like a turf racing geologist of time and pressure, he values a philosophy of patience, probably most of all. What he sees as turf racing’s greatest attribute is watching a horse settle as she or he runs on the grass. That “give,” as they stride across the ground, is a site to behold because it seems effortless. Unlike dirt contests, sod ones do not incorporate being “sent,” as the phrase goes. Its strata are a much more European-type racing, to lay back, form up, then to make an attack run in the final stages of a race. Motion says, “There is such beauty in watching a horse’s muscles learn to relax on the turf and just settle.”

That is something he has tried to instill in every Thoroughbred he has trained. He soaked up turf knowledge from one of his mentors, the great conditioner Jonathan Sheppard. “He was simply a master at turning them off the bridle and getting them to settle,” Motion complimented. Before taking over his own operation in the mid-nineties, he capped off his apprenticeship learning the intricate facets of the racetrack from another Maryland-based trainer named Bernie Bond. “That was my post-doctoral degree,” he mused, “and that was where I really began to understand the innerworkings of this business.”

American turf racing for Motion, and others that ply their trade on the grass tracks of America, face an interesting recent past and future. It wasn't until the mid-1980s that tracks in the US began to install grass ovals. Today, in some ways turf racing is as popular as it has ever been, with most tracks that have a turf course(s) holding nearly half their races on the stuff. Churchill Downs (CDI) just announced a major $10 million renovation of their own original Matt Winn Course after cancelling most of their November races. Work will begin after the Spring Meet, with hopes for completion by the Fall Meet. As for bettors, they like the competitiveness that includes rating, late turns of foot, and of course, traffic troubles. Pools swell because it is so difficult to nom a favorite. Payouts become major paydays for those willing to chance.

The other side of the argument is that with so many turf events, the grass tracks get so heavily used that they are easily worn out. This creates dangerous conditions after huge amounts of rainfall, as racing secretaries seek to push for full fields. Motion grants that of course there are prestigious turf races in America, but they are often overshadowed by the history of more famous races like the Kentucky Derby, the Whitney, or the Jockey Club. That Thoroughbred past of placing such an emphasis on dirt bleeds over into breeding programs. American stock is mainly about dirt pedigrees, as Motion reminds us, “Still to this day it is hard to stand a turf horse in America.” Talk about wind out of the sails.

The solution, as Motion surmises, is to see a paring back of turf racing, and instead have tracks seek quality over quantity. That may sound odd coming from a trainer who is known to specialize in grass route conditioning, but Motion does not speak of things related to the turf without cause or intent. When I asked about Fair Hill’s turf course, he said, “Well, there are a number of ideas, and some are quite good, but I think going the boutique route is probably best.” These types of events have been popular in Europe for centuries and comprise what is called a “Racing Festival.” They are about more than just running horses. Rather, engagement with the community at-large is a major motivator, and that can become a significant economic boon to the surrounding environment. Making Fair Hill a site once again for these types of events is a priority. As for Motion, it could “revolutionize” (his word) the region as a center for turf training and racing.

Boutique tracks exist, like Keeneland (running in April/October) and Kentucky Downs (occupying select days in September). They have developed quite a following by running less. Still, there is a contrast in these venues’ turf courses in that the Haggin Course at Keeneland is in much better shape than Kentucky Downs pear-shaped European-inspired oval. Motion likes the uniqueness of the latter, but wishes they would spend some of that exorbitant purse money on improving the condition of the track. That is precisely what Fair Hill has invested in, a high-quality surface that incorporates the latest drainage systems with a challenging layout. Hence, Motion was able to work his charges this past weekend over a surface that absorbed rain, and was still in firm condition. One of those horses was of key importance to the trainer because she is set to face a major challenge next week when the filly ships to Del Mar Racetrack near San Diego. Her name is Sharing. 

The story of Sharing for Graham Motion did not start in 2019 when she began training with Herringswell. Instead it was on Halloween in 2008, when her dam, Shared Account, first raced for the trainer as a 2-year-old. She bested a field of 6 that day at Laurel Park in a Maiden Special Weight race with a purse of $28,000. After a few unsuccessful attempts in stakes company on the dirt as a 3-year-old, Motion made the fateful decision to switch her to the turf. It was a prophetic move because she flew with the glorious Edgar Prado at the controls. She won the Lake Placid (G2) at Saratoga, gamed second in the QE II Cup (G1) at Keeneland, and did the same in the Diana (G1) in 2010 at the SPA. A disappointing showing in the Flower Bowl (G1) at Belmont lowered the public’s expectations, as she shipped to Churchill Downs for the Breeders’ Cup that year.

Motion describes Shared Account’s mentality as “the best in the world.” To hear him tell it, she was always calm, and “just the kindest filly you could ever find.”  That day, just as some of the Breeders' Cup entrants were making their way onto the packed course, some children decided that racing up and down the bleachers at Churchill would be a blast. Shared Account heard that ruckus, and absolutely “lost it,” according to Motion. She summarily dumped her exercise rider, and bolted. “Luckily,” as Motion told me, “it was trainer Bill Mott who happened to be on a horse who caught her before she could circumvent the track.” It was a perilous and downright unnerving moment. Shared Account evidently returned fit into the hands of her conditioner, and was ready to go because she came out and won the Filly and Mare Turf at 46/1. Winning by a neck over legendary trainer (and one of Motion's idols), Henry Cecil’s Midday (GB), and his own mentor, Jonathan Sheppard, whose entry finished a distant 7th in the race.

The strong set of emotions that Shared Account brought to Motion’s Herringswell Stable was bequeathed to Sharing. She is a filly out of super-sire Speightstown, owned by Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners and Gainesway Stable. Her 14/1 win in the Juvenile Fillies Turf last year at Santa Anita brought another score for Motion and his team, but it also completed a circle too. As 2020 dawned pre-COVID-19, it was thought that this would be an even greater year for Sharing. We all thought so. But it has not been the easiest of times, for the horse or the rest of us. “She has had some feet issues that we have grappled with and now solved,” said Motion. Prone to bruising, Sharing laid off workouts intermittently, but it did not stop her from command performances, both at Churchill Downs, in the Tepin Stakes (Black Type) in May, and the Edgewood Stakes (G2) during September’s Derby Week. In between those wins, Motion shipped her to Royal Ascot in June where she turned in a stellar second to Jessica Harrington’s Alpine Star in the Coronation Stakes (G1). Patience certainly paid off.

By October, Sharing was back in training. Though she skipped the Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland, her progress at Fair Hill has reflected the fact that she is indeed ready to enter a major turf competition. During one of her outings she even breezed by herself, which is rather uncharacteristic. “She is not lazy, rather she just needs some encouragement,” the trainer thought, “but when she ran without company, that spoke to her progress.” Still, this time of year makes it difficult to find Grade 1 on the grass, but Motion is familiar with Del Mar’s Turf Racing Festival that concludes the Bing Crosby Season. He has won next Sunday’s Matriarch (G1) before (Gypsy’s Warning (SAF) - 2010 and Miss Temple City - 2016), so it is a natural place for Sharing to reemerge. “This is going to be a major test for her running against older females,” he said on the eve of her final workout on the Fair Hill Turf Course, “but she has turned a corner, so we are hopeful.”    

Along with Sharing, Motion has other members from Herringswell nominated for Del Mar turf contests including Blame Debbie, Laccario (GER), Batyah, Invincible Gal (GB), Oyster Box, Bye Bye Melvin, and Wootton Asset (FR). Motion confirmed that Sharing’s regular rider, Manny Franco, will be checking his bags en route to San Diego International. The New York-based jockey has made major strides this year on both surfaces. “I have the utmost confidence in Manny,” said Motion, “he is one of the top riders in the country and I am fortunate to have him.” When a turf maestro like Motion says something like that, he means it. “I have only one rule for my jockeys on the turf,” he mused, “be patient and I will never question your decision-making.”

That trust in patience, is something Motion has honed over decades of training. It is one of countless lessons Sheppard taught him back in the late 1980s—that blood transfusion, previously mentioned. A master’s legacy inherited, to be sure. As he relates, “My passion for being around horses all comes together at the end of a long day when I walk the barn, and see all those majestic heads sticking out of their boxes.” No matter how expansive your stable gets, Motion has come to enjoy those small moments ascribed to this sport. In essence, that reflects a practiced growth, and a continued zeal for all aspects that racing on the grass offers.  

As for Sharing, she exhibited strong form on Saturday over the Turf Course at Fair Hill, cruising along with stablemate Laccario (GER). Motion watched intently, waiting to see any rejoinders to how she was handling that firm ground he carefully walked the day before. According to Johnny Mitchell, Herringswell's foreman, “It was probably the best she’s come out of a work, foot-wise.” Now, it is on to Del Mar for the Matriarch (G1). In the meantime, patience will be the guide as Sunday approaches.

That fits nicely with Motion’s philosophy of turf training. Thus, the practice of patience functions just as well as those Thoroughbreds that learn to settle on Fair Hill’s innovative grass course. This revolutionary racing landscape in Maryland where time and pressure, slowly and steadily unfold, will produce intended results.

Just ask Graham Motion about it.

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