Animal Kingdom is the 4th horse back, being led to train at Fair Hill.

(by Nick Hahn)

Located in the “Hill Country” of Maryland where Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania come together is Fair Hill truly an “animal kingdom”.  In this rural part of Maryland, small communities are named after the hills where they are located, like Egg Hill and Cherry Hill.  At Fair Hill among the lengthy, winding roads, some thirty-something stables line the dirt and tapeta training tracks like lakehouses around almost any large recreational waterbody.  Among the trainers that share the facility are Michael Matz, Michael Pino, Michael Moran, Michael Trombetta and Mark Shuman.  Nestled back in the wooded coves down a winding road is the stable where Graham Motion keeps his Kentucky Derby winner, Animal Kingdom. 

Animal Kingdom leaves the earth during his morning gallop.

Among a caravan of other horses, Motion’s prize colt was led out Saturday morning by Dave Rock, Motion’s assistant.  In front of touring members of a local pony club, Animal Kingdom galloped on the mile training track with his exercise rider David Nava.  Nothing fancy in this morning’s outing, a half mile stroll to the far side of the track and a mile gallop with a little bit of company to where he started. Then a stroll to the far gate and a leisurely walk back to the barn again with Rock.  While Animal Kingdom may be largely alone on the track, he isn’t alone at Fair Hill.

“It’s been really positive,” said Motion about his Fair Hill reception.  “I think it’s really a unique situation here where everyone is extremely supportive of each other.  Obviously, there is a lot of rivalry in our sport but everyone here is really routing for this horse.  They even allowed us a special training time so that no one would interfere with him which is something I really appreciated.  It’s nothing that I would have asked for but it’s something that they really felt strongly about doing.  This is the best place I could imagine having this horse right now with the lead up to the Preakness.”

Onlookers include owner Team Valor’s Barry Irwin with cap near front.

This was my second visit to Fair Hill.  In 2006 I was able to spend much of Black Eyed Susan day on the spacious grounds with my winning Kentucky Derby winning selection, Barbaro, before his ill-fated Preakness.  After witnessing his Derby triumph two weeks early, I saw him rise up on a similar type of day from the long cut grass to gallop over the training track in a similar manner.  Trainer Michael Matz spoke to reporters and responded to my question about his Virginia Derby nominee, (“we’re keeping our options open”) while Barbaro posed for pictures for a semi-circle of photographers.

Fair Hill has over 5,600 acres that was purchased from the DuPont estate in 1975.  The upcoming steeplechase racing at Fair Hill on May 28th has parimutel wagering, which may be the only pure steeplechase venue to offer wagering.  (The Strawberry Hill Races at Colonial Downs on Preakness day will offer pari-mutuel wagering for the first time.)  Stone buildings are scattered throughout the nature area that has public stables for trail riding, walking and biking paths and wildlife areas.

A local pony club has a ringside seat for Animal Kingdom’s lap.

While getting a coffee on Saturday morning at a deli located nearly, I stumbled on wait staff struggling to come up with a sandwich in honor of Kentucky Derby winning connections.  The new menu item will likely be served on an English muffin (Graham Motion) with a side of animal crackers. 

“I think he’s somewhat unaware of the chaos he has created around himself but he handling everything very well and he seems to be in really good shape,” added Motion.

Speaking of animal crackers, that may lead the list of potential names of offspring when the Motion’s horse goes to stud, hopefully not anytime soon.  Being sent to a Lionhearted mare may could generate “Lion Kingdom”.  Being sent of a Housebuster mare would lead you to “Animal House.”  Look for lots of fun in naming his progeny. 

Assistant Dave Rock leads the Derby winner back from the track…

I wasn’t the only one nuts enough to drive from Virginia to get a glimpse of the Kentucky Derby winner in the misty rain.  Another father who had never seen a horse race before woke up at 4:00 am and drove from northern Virginia to bring his daughter to see racing’s current largest newsmaker.

Motion is very familiar to racegoers at Colonial Downs, not for running colts on the dirt but for winning stakes races with fillies and mares on the turf.  He won the All Along (gr. IIT) twice with Film Maker in 2004 and 2006 and returned to the Colonial Downs winner’s circle in 2010 with Shared Account in the All Along and Check the Label in the Virginia Oaks.  Check the Label may be back for the All Along this year.  Other starters Motion may have in the bigger stakes races at Colonial Downs include Smart Bid in the Colonial Turf Cup (now open to older horses), Crimson China in the Virginia Derby and Dynamic Holiday in the Virginia Oaks.

…but not without a couple clicks from the camera eyes.

I wasn’t surprised at all when Animal Kingdom won the Derby.  Less surprised might have been trainer Woodberry Payne, who urged me to place Motion’s horse near the top of my Turf Ten list while standing in as a racing official at the Foxfield Races in April.  With several significant defections of leading contenders such as Uncle Mo, The Factor and Motion’s own Toby’s Corner, there was a bit of void near the top of the Derby roster.  I had him third in Nick’s Picks behind Dialed In and Santiva, not moving him up further because of his lack of start on the dirt and light raceday experience.  (Barbaro should have taught me that lesson in 2006.)  His four career starts prior to the Derby were quality outings. Animal Kingdom’s sire is Leroidesanimaux whose name is French for “king of the animals”.  But his sire is actually Brazilian out of a German-bred mare named Dalicia by Acatenango.  With an English trainer and an American owner.  Undoubtedly, this colt has worldwide appeal.

Motion’s Kingdom of Fair Hill during his Triple Crown run.

While Motion’s colt certainly wasn’t a consensus pick prior to the Kentucky Derby, after the race a consensus thought exists. Winning the Kentucky Derby couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. With only two prior starters in the Run for the Roses that never got close to the wire leader, Motion acts a like trainer that been there before. He has attempted to make every interview, shake every hand and exhibits an unshakable coolness that passes through to every member of his stable team.  While trained by Motion, Animal Kingdom has yet to be the favorite.  That might not be  the case in the Preakness where he will undoubtedly enjoy a home field advantage.