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 his or her 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.

In an effort 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.

ELKTON — If thoroughbred trainer H. Graham Motion had to liken his job to a role in another sport, it would be a head coach.

One of football’s best agrees. Motion, 59, remembers when three-time Super Bowl champion Andy Reid, then with the Philadelphia Eagles, visited his stables here at the Fair Hill Training Center after he won the 2011 Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom.

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“He couldn’t believe the similarities of what we did to what coaches do,” Motion said. “Obviously, on a different scale, but just the whole thing of dealing with the injuries and mapping out the schedules and how you treated them before they ran, there’s a lot of similarities.”

There is an obvious, though very important, difference: Horses cannot talk.

“When the quarterback goes off the field at halftime and says: ‘My knee is killing me. I might not be able to get back in, coach,’ my horses cannot tell me that. I’ve got to figure that out,” Motion said.

Each morning starts with a member of Motion’s team checking the horses’ legs for cuts or inflammation and to see if they’ve eaten all their food — leftovers are typically a sign something is off.

Working out dozens of thoroughbreds a day requires a regimented schedule for when the horses are turned out in the paddock and when they train.

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Prior to heading to the training track, groups of eight or nine horses will spend time in the paddock, a grassy enclosure where they can gallop, roam, and, well, be horses.

“That’s not something everybody does,” Motion said. “It’s something we have the luxury of doing at Fair Hill because we have lots of turnout space, whereas at the racetrack you don’t.”

H. Graham Motion’s horses enter a Fair Hill Training Center track in Elkton, Maryland, on Friday, April 19, 2024. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Grooms will bring the horses back to their stalls to “tack them up,” meaning they fit the horses with all the riding equipment such as a saddle, a bridle and, if necessary, bandages, so they’re ready to go for the exercise riders. The paddock is rotated every 30 minutes.

But before the riders head to the trail that leads from the barn to the track, they will jog the horses past Motion so he can look them over.

“We do that every day, we check them out to see if they’re sound, to make sure it’s OK to take them out to train,” he said.

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As this is happening, Motion will consult a spreadsheet with the assignments for each set of horses and offer instructions.

“It’s their first breeze, so just sensible, OK?” he said before one set, telling two riders to have their mounts run side by side.

Here in mid-April, many of Motion’s horses are about to get their 2024 campaigns started and are in the early stages of building up their workouts ahead of their first race of the year. The 2-year-olds are just learning how to become a racehorse, going through light works to build up speed and stamina and gate schooling to get comfortable with the starting gate every horse loads into before a race.

Over at Fair Hill’s training track, which has a 1-mile dirt oval and a smaller inner oval with Tapeta — a softer synthetic surface that stands up to wet and cold conditions — Motion will watch his charges to see their body language and how well they move.

“You’re looking at their energy level,” he said. “You want to see them on the muscle, but not too aggressive, because if they’re too aggressive, they’re probably just being very nervous.”

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For more strenuous sessions, Motion will clock each furlong (one-eighth of a mile) and call out the time over a radio; each rider is equipped with an earpiece.

“I can tell them to encourage the horse to finish or I can tell them they’re doing too much,” he said. “The riders are very familiar with the time, so they kind of know when they’re on target.

“We have an idea of what we want them to do,” he continued, “and I usually tell them before they go out. I help them by being on the radio.”

After the set is finished, Motion consults with the exercise riders again to see what they think. Did the horse run willingly, or did it take some urging? How much energy did the trainee have to exert?

A hot walker takes one of H. Graham Motion’s horses on a cool-down walk around the stable. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

The group heads back to the barn, where a hot walker will guide each horse around a mulch loop in the stable area for about 25 minutes to cool down and have a drink. Once that’s done, the horses go back to their stalls, where a groom will care for them again, placing particular emphasis on cleaning and treating the legs — a small nick or cut that isn’t tended to could lead to an infection.

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Each set takes about 45 minutes start to finish. Soon, the next one is up and it’s time to repeat the process again. Motion and his team of assistants, riders, hot walkers and grooms do this seven times a day, seven days a week — though Sundays are typically reserved for horses racing that week.

A chunk of the afternoon is spent formulating the plan for the next day.

Motion has recently finished relocating his base of operations from Florida, where he trains in the winter when many turf courses in the mid-Atlantic are closed, to Fair Hill, his year-round headquarters for the last two decades (his house is about a mile away).

But he’s been thinking about the races over the two days of Preakness and the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes for at least a month.

Although he was born in Cambridge, England, Motion has been a trainer in Maryland since the early 1990s and has always targeted the biggest racing days in the state, like Preakness and Maryland Million. Last year he took home a $50,000 training bonus for saddling seven horses over two days of Preakness and the Black-Eyed Susan, including Nagirroc, winner of the James W. Murphy Stakes.

“The trainer’s bonus is great, but it’s something we’ve always pointed for anyway,” he said. “It’s also very local for me. Instead of having to put a horse on a van 10 hours to Kentucky, I’m going an hour down the road to Pimlico. And that’s a big factor, some horses don’t handle that as well. It’s the difference between an away game and a home game, right?”

Up next is deciding which horses at Motion’s Herringswell Stables will run at Pimlico Race Course in mid-May. It’s not nearly as simple as it sounds.

Check back for the next article of the series.

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