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 and Part 2.

ELKTON — A week out from the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes, and eight days from the Preakness Stakes, there’s a persistent light rain falling here at the Fair Hill Training Center, a possible sign of things to come at Pimlico Race Course for the second leg of the Triple Crown.

The forecast calls for at least a 50% chance of rain on both Friday and Saturday at Old Hilltop when the historic track is set to host two of the preeminent days on Maryland’s racing calendar.

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For now, the top concern for trainer H. Graham Motion and his team is making sure the dozens of horses in their barn are able to get their work in while the conditions allow for it.

“The weather tends to take us out of our routine,” Motion explained.

H. Graham Motion gives feedback while watching his horses breeze and timing them at Fair Hill Training Center on May 10. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Neither human nor horse is keen to head out in the rain, leading assistant trainer Ian Wilson to at one point lament how the proceedings are dragging out. “Let’s move!” he urged the crew of exercise riders at Motion’s Herringswell Stables.

But everyone is aware how important it is for these equine athletes to get their workouts in to maintain peak performance — that is, as long as the surface of the training track doesn’t deteriorate to the point where it might make more sense to call things off.

If the dirt gets too muddy, maintenance crews might then “seal,” or pack down, the oval to restrict the amount of water getting absorbed into the surface, making it less forgiving for runners.

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Fair Hill also has an inner track of Tapeta, a blend of sand, rubber and wax that is touted for the cushion it provides and its ability to drain in wet weather, which is why Tapeta and other synthetics are referred to as all-weather surfaces. Most of Motion’s turf horses like to train on it.

Luckily, the rain last Friday never amounted to more than a nuisance, and the team is able to complete the day’s sets.

Cat McGee, assistant trainer, and H. Graham Motion look over the daily schedule board at Herringswell Stables on May 10. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

One of the trainees is Five Towns, a 4-year-old filly coming off a 1 1/4-length win in the $100,000 Dahlia Stakes at Laurel Park on April 20 who is jumping up to graded-stakes competition in the Grade 3 Gallorette on Saturday. It’s an important milestone for any thoroughbred.

Running in a graded-stakes and performing well shows a horse is among the best of the best, and a great performance in a Grade 3 could eventually lead to an appearance in a Grade 1, the upper echelon of the sport.

Not all stakes races are created equal. The American Graded Stakes Committee of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association assigns grades to help identify the best races in the country using criteria such as purse, longevity and medication requirements. All three legs of the Triple Crown are Grade 1 races.

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Just by getting placed into a graded-stakes race, Five Towns’ value as a potential broodmare increases. Motion said the filly’s owner and breeder, Merry Fox Stud Limited in England, sent Five Towns to him with that particular goal in mind.

When Motion first got the filly, whose sire Lord Kanaloa was bred in Japan, she had already won two races across the Atlantic, including a handicap at Royal Windsor in September 2023. She handled the transition from Europe to America well, which is not always a sure thing.

“With her, it was very smooth because she came at a time where we weren’t in a big rush with her, she had time to get used to different style of training,” Motion said. “We train on an oval whereas in Europe they train up and down hills, straightaways, so some horses take that better than others. Some horses thrive on the simpler regime that we have.”

After a fifth-place finish in an allowance optional claiming race at Gulfstream park to start her 2024 campaign, Five Towns won her next two times out, including the Dahlia. Each time, Motion has been impressed with the filly’s ability to handle the challenge.

“She’s also improved since I started running her,” he said. “Her second race was quite impressive, and then obviously, her last race was very impressive. So she’s another one that’s kind of kept stepping up.”

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The Dahlia and Gallorette are similar turf races aside from the grade, both with purses of $100,000. The Gallorette is only one-sixteenth of a mile longer. Motion said he feels comfortable running her back in a race a short drive from Fair Hill, and he sees Pimlico’s turf course as a fair test compared to newer grass tracks.

“Monmouth, for example, gets very firm, very speed-favoring,” Motion said. “Pimlico is more of an old-fashioned turf course, I don’t think it necessarily favors anything. At Monmouth, you have to ride a little more aggressively, because it’s so speed-favoring, whereas Pimlico you can let the horse run its race.”

On this soggy Friday, Motion is watching Five Towns gallop with an eye toward breezing her over the weekend. Most of the horses gearing up for races on the card of the Black-Eyed Susan or Preakness are galloping to get regular exercise. But Five Towns had her regimen disrupted shortly after the Dahlia, when she had to quarantine for 10 days due to an outbreak of equine herpes at Laurel Park. That meant 10 days away from the training track.

At left, winner's circle photos celebrating some of H. Graham Motion’s best horses, including 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom (bottom), hang in his office on May 10. At right, a helmet and jacket are hung up. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)
Pillows made from saddle cloths rest on top of H. Graham Motion’s office couch at Herringswell Stables in Elkton. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

“I just want to be sure she’s ready to go on and do some work,” Motion said from Fair Hill’s observation tower.

Getting the timing just right is important. A breeze is much closer to racing speed: A galloping horse will run a furlong — one-eighth of a mile — no faster than 16 seconds, assistant trainer Cat McGee said. A breeze time is closer to 13 seconds per furlong.

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Convinced Five Towns is prepared for the more taxing workout, Motion breezed the filly five furlongs over the Tapeta track Sunday along with two other horses from his barn, Dataman and English Bee, who also ran at Laurel on April 20 and had to quarantine. Five Towns finished at 1:02.40, leading Motion to say Monday he’s “very happy with her.”

Now, as the full slate of stakes races at Pimlico approaches, the goal is to keep all the horses happy and healthy before shipping to Baltimore on the morning of their race.

“A week is a long time in horse racing. You just have to hope that they don’t catch a bug or get a snotty nose or step on a stone,” Motion said Friday. “I think trainers are always anxious because we’re always worried about something happening to put the horses off schedule.”

And there are factors outside a trainer’s control.

“I think the one concern I always have for this weekend is the weather because that can change grass racing so dramatically,” Motion said. “If all of a sudden you’re running on a very soft turf course on Friday or Saturday, that can throw everything up in the air, because you don’t know how a lot of these horses are going to handle that.”

Check back for the next article in the series.

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