Q&A: Horse trainer H. Graham Motion on Sharing’s Breeders’ Cup win, horse racing reforms and more

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Trainer H. Graham Motion watches from the rail at the Fair Hill Training Center. Credit: Maggie Kimmitt of Herringswell Stables.

At 13-1, Sharing was a bit of a long shot in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf last November. But with jockey Manuel Franco aboard, the 2 year old stayed near the front of the pack for most of the race and found an extra gear in the stretch run, surging past Sweet Melania for a convincing 1 1/4-length win. Sharing is just the fourth Maryland-bred horse to reach the winner’s circle at the Breeders’ Cup, and the first since Cigar won the Classic in 1995.

For trainer H. Graham Motion, it was déjà vu. In 2010, he brought Sharing’s dam, Shared Account, to Churchill Downs for the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf and pulled off an even bigger upset, going off at 46-1.

As Motion told me last month in an interview, the Breeders’ Cup is like the Super Bowl of horse racing, an end-of-the-year card of championship races bringing out the best competition from across the country–and sometimes even further afield.

But the proceedings did not end without tragedy. Mongolian Groom suffered a leg injury during the Breeders’ Cup Classic and was later euthanized–this despite increased veterinary screenings before the race, a response to a spate of equine deaths at the host track, Santa Anita Park.

Motion, an outspoken advocate for change in the industry, tweeted after the race: “Horses had been supervised all week in the most thorough manner I have ever seen and many positive changes to protocol were made in the lead up to the Breeders Cup [sic]. It will never be perfect but we came darn close this weekend at Santa Anita.”

A coalition of track owners–including the Stronach Group, the operator of Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park–formed the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition to call for more veterinary reports, additional drug tests and stricter regulations in horse racing.

With a win on one of the sport’s biggest stages under Motion’s belt and an active discussion underway about changes in horse racing, it seemed like a good time to talk with the trainer, a native of England who has carved out a career one of the most successful racing careers of anyone in Maryland. We also talked about the future of Pimlico; some of the improvements being made at the Fair Hill Training Center in Cecil County, where his operation, Herringswell Stables, is based; and even his Twitter account, which is sometimes critical of the president and the country’s inaction after countless mass shootings.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity and condensed.

Baltimore Fishbowl: In November, you triumphed at the Breeders’ Cup with Sharing in the Grade I Juvenile Fillies Turf. What was that moment like for you?

H. Graham Motion: It was a big moment. I mean, look, the Breeders’ Cup is our Super Bowl. It’s our championship weekend, and the whole year is pointed towards that. So it’s a big deal, obviously, and especially since I trained the mare and especially since she’s a Maryland bred.

BFB: That was the first Maryland bred since 1995. You’re based here and your career is here. What does that mean for you being a sort of standard bearer for Maryland in some way?

GM: Maryland is where I’ve been since the beginning, and I’m very proud of that fact. My roots were in Maryland. To a certain degree, you feel like you’re representing your home base when you go to these big events, whether they’re national or international. 

BFB: And there was the added significance of Shared Account’s win in 2010. When you train a horse and then later work with one of his or her offspring, do you see similarities in how they behave and what their preferences are, how they work?

GM: Usually you do. Shared Account was one of my all-time favorites. She was a really kind, likable mare, and I think this filly shows a lot of those similar qualities. She was also very laid back and that’s a big part of being a good racehorse. It’s just like any athlete, you’ve got to be able to handle it mentally. Shared Account just had this great disposition, which she seems to have passed on to Sharing.

BFB: Can you say at this point what your plans are for Sharing in her upcoming 3-year-old season?

GM: Well I can say initially we’re going to point for the Tampa Oaks, which is in March at Tampa Bay Downs. That’s one of the first big graded races for 3-year-old fillies on the grass. And then after that, we’ll need to make a decision as to whether–she actually trains quite well on the dirt. So we’ll then have to make a decision as to whether we’re going to go in the direction of the Kentucky Oaks or possibly a race like the Coronation in England at Royal Ascot in June. Those are going to be some options.

BFB: You were quoted shortly after the Breeders’ Cup as saying that racing at the Selima Stakes at Laurel Park was beneficial because it helped you stay close to home and provided more recovery time before going to the Breeders’.

GM: Definitely. They raised the purse on the Selima, which made it a race that we could use as a stepping stone to the Breeders’ Cup. Had it still been a $100,000 race, I don’t think it would have been a significant enough race for us to get to the Breeders’ Cup, because you have to have a certain amount of qualifying credentials in order to get there. So I think that was a big credit to Laurel management, that they made these two 2-year-old races important races on the road to the Breeders’ Cup. And it worked out really well for us.

BFB: For people who may not be as familiar with horse racing, how important is that part of your job, charting a particular path and picking the right races?

GM: It’s a big part of it. And we’re so lucky on the East Coast because we have so many options, especially where we train at Fair Hill, because we can go sort of wherever we like. Within our reach, we have multiple tracks within two hours.

But Laurel’s always been one of my favorite tracks to race at, and the timing of this race was perfect, we felt, to get her to the Breeders’ Cup in the best possible shape. She had plenty of time to recover from that race, to go to the Breeders’ Cup in the best condition you could want. A lot of those prep races are not like that. A lot of them come up three weeks before, and you don’t really want your horse running its prime effort three weeks before the biggest race of its life.

It’s very much like other sports teams. It’s like football teams. You want them to peak now, not in September, right?

BFB: Do you have like an overarching philosophy in terms of picking races and mapping that out or is it sort of a case-by-case basis?

GM: I mean, mostly spacing them out, proximity to where you’re located, because obviously the further you have to go, like a human athlete, it’s a little bit harder on them when you’ve got to get on a plane and travel. There are certain equations that get into it.

And for me, to get to the Breeders’ Cup, to have a horse in the best condition in November, you need to be somewhat lightly raced in order to get there in good shape.

Sharing trains at Fair Hill. Credit: Maggie Kimmitt of Herringswell Stables.

BFB: On the subject of Fair Hill, the state is spending $17 million to upgrade the facilities, including an improved track surface and renovated grandstand. Aside from the obvious benefit of having newly improved things, how will those changes help your operation?

GM: First of all, I think it’s going to be huge for the area because the five-star event is going to be a big deal. That’s for three-day eventing, they combine dressage, cross-country and showjumping over three days. There’s only one other five-star in the U.S., and that’s in Kentucky in the spring. So that’s going to bring a lot of attention to the area, and it’s going to be proper, state-of-the-art facilities.

But also I think it enhances the value of our facilities at Fair Hill, even though we’re not directly associated with the race course. The fact that we now have this improved facility there, it only increases the value of our environment and also encourages more people to come here.

BFB: I did want to ask you about Pimlico and everything that’s gone on with that. All year there was so much talk about the future of Pimlico and the Preakness Stakes being held there. And then in October, the city and Stronach announced this deal to build new facilities in both Pimlico and Laurel. What’s your view on the proposal that’s been put forth?

GM: I think it’s a perfect solution. It enables us to continue the Preakness at Pimlico, which I think is so important for it to be held in Baltimore. It’s a Baltimore event. We can hold a boutique race meet there, have the facility the rest of the year for other uses and make it what should be an extremely nice area. And the whole community is going to benefit from it.

We get to race the Preakness at Pimlico and we also get to improve the facilities at Laurel and insure horse racing, which is such a big industry for the state, for the next 30 years, I believe.

BFB: Do you foresee any problems or hurdles, specifically in your role as a trainer, with the way it’s laid out?

GM: The only hurdle I see that’s going to be a little bit tricky for them is how they’re going to improve both facilities without displacing all the horsemen. I’m sure they’ve thought it out, but that’s going to be a tough act to juggle. It’s not going to directly affect me, because I’m at Fair Hill, but certainly for the horsemen that are there, that’s going to be something they’re going to have to work around. But that’s a temporary problem.

BFB: And the synthetic training track–I imagine you’re going to stay at Fair Hill even when that is online–but what kind of enhancement does that provide for Laurel relative to tracks in, say, Kentucky or California?

GM: I think that’s so important, not just to have another surface to train on, but for the safety of the horses and to give the horses another surface to train on–and also a surface that’s proven to be very safe to train on. It’s what we train on at Fair Hill. And I think more and more we’re going to find these surfaces showing up in racing in this day and age. So I think it kind of gets Laurel ahead of the curve a little bit, even.

BFB: Do you think other tracks will start, in addition to training, having their main dirt tracks turned into this synthetic material?

GM: My hope is that they will go to what we will have, which is the option of racing on both surfaces. That’s my understanding of what they’re going to have at Laurel. There’s more and more turf racing these days in this country. And it’s very hard to maintain the turf courses–the wear and tear, it’s very difficult on the turf courses. So this will enable them to move turf races onto the synthetic track in bad weather. It all adds towards the safety of the horse that’s racing.

BFB: You’ve been fairly outspoken about the need for changes in the industry, particularly in the wake of the dozens of equine deaths at Santa Anita Park. What in your view should be done to get this on the right track?

GM: Well, I think the steps that are being made are what’s important, and this is one of them–improving the racetrack surfaces, and a big effort to reduce the timing that therapeutic drugs are given leading up to a race. What’s going to increase the safety of the horse is protecting them, not allowing them to be given medications within 24 hours of a race. And I think these are all steps that are being worked towards.

BFB: Are you referring to the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition?

GM: Yes.

BFB: Are you a supporter?

GM: I’m a supporter of it, yes.

BFB: Do you think it’s enough or does it need to go further?

GM: I think it’s a big step. Let’s put it that way.

BFB: Do you think there should be a single governing body? A lot of people have been calling for that in the discussions surrounding Santa Anita.

GM: I think we definitely need some kind of a governing body. I think it’s unrealistic to think that we’re going to have one person overseeing the whole sport, because it’s so complicated with the different states’ rules as far as betting, gambling, whatever you want to call it.

But I still feel very strongly that we need a board or a group to look up to that can guide us as to making decisions on race day, making medication decisions, improving the safety of facilities. We should have somebody that can say, Look, this needs to be done, or somebody that the racetracks can turn to and say, How should we handle this? So, yes, I feel very strongly about it.

BFB: There’s been significant political pressure in California from all this, to the point where the idea of a ban has been floated. Even Sen. Dianne Feinstein has said it in sort of vaguer language. Do you anticipate that conversation ever happening in Maryland? Because now The Baltimore Sun is writing about horse fatalities at Laurel. It’s not happening at the same rate as California, but it still is becoming news. Do you ever foresee that conversation happening here?

GM: Look, I think it would be a terrible shame if it did. I mean, unfortunately, we’re in a sport where horses, like any athlete, are going to get hurt. And horses just cannot respond to some of these injuries like humans can. And that’s the problem we have. A lot of injuries that would be very simply dealt with for a human athlete, horses cannot tolerate being kept in stalls or being kept in bed, if you like, when they have an injured leg.

So this is something we have to deal with and it’s very difficult. Horses are always going to get hurt. At the Breeders’ Cup, I thought it was a terrible shame, because I thought the scrutiny that was done–and I was there, obviously–the scrutiny that was performed overseeing the horses that trained that week leading up to the Breeders’ Cup was something I’ve never seen before. And yet still, unfortunately, a horse got hurt. And it’s very unrealistic for us to say that we’re going to do away with all injuries. But we definitely, as an industry, need to reduce the injuries the best we can.

And what’s gone on in California is unacceptable, and I understand that. And we need to make changes in order to prevent that from happening the best we can. We’ll never have it perfect. This is not a perfect world. But we can make it better, and we need to make it better.

But I think to penalize the industry in general–unless we don’t take care of it ourselves, which we need to. All of us that are in this industry, we love the horses, we love racing, and it supplies a tremendous amount of pleasure to the animals, to the people and a tremendous amount of jobs in the state as well.

BFB: I wanted to shift gears a bit and ask you about your Twitter, because you’ve made no secret of your distaste for the president and support for measures like gun control. How does that go over in the world of horse racing, which I imagine is pretty conservative?

GM: I guess I try to balance a fine line. First of all, I’m an immigrant and I’m an American citizen. And I am extremely aware of the fact that I wouldn’t have what I have if I wasn’t in this country. So that’s important for people to understand. This country offered me an opportunity that I would not have had anywhere else.

I have voted Republican. I have voted Democrat. I’m just offended by the way this president handles himself. And I’m sure I offend some people in the business, but I try to be sensible about the things that I fight.

And also, as people have become angrier and angrier on social media [laughs], I’ve become less outspoken about it, because it’s almost become more and more sensitive, especially in the present environment.

I do get a lot of comments about it when I’m racing [laughs]. I realized that at some point I could have offended people. I would hope that, you know, people that appreciate my training abilities can overlook my personal feelings.

But it’s something I feel strongly about. The gun control situation is shocking to me in this country, that nothing’s done about it. And I grew up with guns. I grew up shooting. We grew up on a farm shooting rabbits, it’s something my brother and I did.

BFB: Do you still, out of curiosity?

GM: I will occasionally go with my son to a clay pigeon shoot. But I do not hunt specifically, no.

BFB: To wrap things up, what can we look forward to from you in 2020? What are you looking forward to most?

GM: I hope getting through this situation with what’s gone on in California. I hope we can make things better for everybody’s path forward. And I really hope that this deal with the Preakness can come through. I think that’s going to be tremendous for everybody in the state. I think it’s a win-win for racing and also for the people in Baltimore.

Personally, you know, I hope Sharing is going to continue to improve and be a really serious horse to contend with.

Brandon Weigel

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