A horse race like the Preakness Stakes takes about two minutes. But there are weeks, sometimes months, of work to get a thoroughbred ready to compete. The preparation falls to the trainer, who plots a course for their trainee to be in the best possible shape before the starting gate flings open and determines the best course for getting there. Each circumstance is unique.

To better understand a trainer’s thought process, The Baltimore Banner will follow H. Graham Motion, a Kentucky Derby winner, four-time Breeders’ Cup winner and finalist for the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, as he trains a horse for a race happening sometime during the two days of Preakness and the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes. Read: Part 1.

ELKTON — When trainer H. Graham Motion maps out a campaign for one of his horses, he tends to pick a goal and work backward, believing horses need three to four weeks between races to maintain top form.

“If I have a horse I think is good enough to run the Breeders’ Cup, I want to get them there in the best, optimum shape,” he said, referring to the fall series with some of the strongest fields and richest purses in the sport. “And, for me, I believe that’s four or five races to get there. If you run them more than that, it can catch up with them. It’s hard for them to give that effort every time.”

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Of course, the best-laid schemes of thoroughbreds and their trainers often go awry. An injury could lead to a long layoff. A sense a horse is not performing well during workouts might prompt a trainer to seek alternatives. A big effort in a race could result in a longer recovery period. A storm could bring unfavorable conditions and a scratch from the field. That’s why Motion thinks the best trainers have patience.

“It’s so hard to be patient,” he said with a laugh. “It really is, you know?”

Ultimately, it’s important to do right by the horse and not rush it, he said, “and that takes patience.”

That partly explains why an equine protagonist for this series has yet to be identified. Motion has already thought about races on the days of Preakness and the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes for a group of his trainees, but he doesn’t have to formally nominate any of his runners until about two weeks beforehand. Even then, he could forgo the entrance fee to a stakes race if he feels a horse he’s nominated is not quite ready.

We can, however, eliminate one possibility: Trikari, a bay colt Motion believes is one of the best 3-year-olds in his barn. He’s set to run Saturday in the Grade 2 American Turf Stakes, one of the races preceding the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. Several factors in that decision illustrate other parts of the equation a trainer has to consider, including prize money and prestige.

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The American Turf has a purse of $600,000, whereas the James W. Murphy Stakes, on the Preakness undercard at Pimlico, is contested for $100,000. One is a graded-stakes race, placing it higher in the competitive hierarchy of the sport, and the other is not. So there’s the chance of a larger payday but also stiffer competition. Then there’s the distance. The Murphy is 1 mile on the grass, and the American Turf is one-16th longer.

Trikari, one of H. Graham Motion’s horses, is set to run Saturday in the Grade 2 American Turf Stakes at Churchill Downs. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Yes, there’s a lot to contemplate.

“That’s what we spend most of our time doing is making decisions; that’s what it’s about,” Motion said. “And you make good decisions and you make bad decisions. And it’s harder with horses, because, like I said to you the other day, they can’t talk to you.”

Motion does have several live contenders for Preakness weekend — in 2023, he saddled one winner, two horses that came in second place and one that came in third — so let’s meet them and get a look at their results before this month.

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Motion spends mornings at Fair Hill training these horses, assessing their fitness and contemplating their recent performances. It’s up to him to synthesize that information, along with the desire of each ownership group, to figure out the next step.

Dataman, English Bee and Five Towns ran April 20 at Laurel Park.

In the $100,000 Henry S. Clark Stakes, a 1-mile turf race for horses ages 3 and up, Dataman and English Bee finished 1-2 in a five-horse field. It was Dataman’s first race of 2024 and English Bee’s third after two disappointing outcomes in March at Gulfstream Park.

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Motion is contemplating both for the Grade 3 Dinner Party Stakes, a 1 1/8-mile turf race on the Preakness undercard. But he might enter only one.

“It’s a little bit far for English Bee,” Motion said. Since 2022, the gelding has run 1 mile eight times and won once and finished second twice and third once. His best finish in a longer race in that stretch is third.

“And Dataman, he ran a big race the other day,“ he said. “It always worries me when you come back after running such a big race off a break like he had, coming back too quickly. You don’t want to run them back too quickly. So that’s going to go into my consideration.”

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Dataman recorded his highest-ever Beyer Speed Figure, a handicapping tool developed by famed turf writer Andrew Beyer that factors in the time of the race, distance and speed of the track on a given day. Dataman received a 94.

“That’s a pretty solid number,” Motion said. “I mean, that’ll win you a stake in most places.”

And he was happy to see English Bee shake off two poor races in Florida.

“To see him run back to his previous form was very encouraging, especially for an 8-year-old,” Motion said.

Five Towns won the Dahlia Stakes, a $100,000 1-mile turf race for fillies and mares ages 3 and up, with a sharp stretch move, pulling toward the outside and blowing past three rivals for a convincing 1 1/4-length victory.

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Five Towns is being considered for the Grade 3 Gallorette Stakes, run at 1 1/16th miles on the turf for fillies and mares ages 3 and up.

“I couldn’t have expected her to run so impressively,” Motion said. “Her number was not as strong off the race, which makes me wonder, you know, maybe the competition was a little weak. But she’s won her last two races, and that’s always hard to do.”

The filly recorded an 81 Beyer Speed Figure her last time out. It was 79 in the Dahlia.

Also on April 20, Highland Chief ran in the Grade 2 VisitLEX Elkhorn Stakes, a 1 1/2-mile turf race at Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky. He was in prime position much of the way, stalking the three front-runners before moving into second with one-quarter mile left. But he faded down the stretch and placed fifth.

Regardless of the outcome, it was beneficial to get back on the track.

“He probably needed the race,” Motion said. “He was coming off a year-and-a-half layoff; it’s a long time to be away.”

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Motion sees him as another possibility in the Dinner Party.

“So that’s another thing that I will weigh into it: I think it’s unlikely that I run more than two,” he said.

Intuitively, it’s not ideal to have your own horses compete against each other for the same prize money. And, in this particular case, Motion thinks he’ll eventually give at least one member of the trio additional rest.

“I like to run at Pimlico because it is my local track, but there are a lot of options coming up for these horses in June and July,” he said.

Remember how weather can affect plans? That’s happened to Royal Wintour. She was supposed to run in a $110,000 allowance race at Keeneland on April 12, but rain led track stewards to move it off the turf. Royal Wintour was scratched. Another opportunity came in a $110,000 allowance race April 25. The only difference? The latter race is one-eighth of a mile longer.

Royal Wintour sat in the middle of the pack for most of the trip before coming with a later charge. She dueled with Style Points toward the end, their heads bobbing side by side in a thrilling finish. Style Points won by a nose.

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“She ran very well in Kentucky and was unlucky to lose,” Motion said.

He’ll point Royal Wintour to the Hilltop Stakes, a 1-mile turf race for 3-year-old fillies on Black-Eyed Susan day.

All eyes in the racing world will turn to Louisville this weekend. A short time after a Derby winner is crowned, they’ll turn to Pimlico. Motion will have a lot of decisions to make.

Check back for the next article of the series.

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