Normally in racing you place the successful horse’s connections in the winner’s enclosure. After Motivator won this year’s Vodafone Derby at Epsom, it was a case of finding the winner’s enclosure amid the connections, the 230 members of the Royal Ascot Racing Club.
I have not seen the Flat racing crowd in a happier mood for a decade. Forget the crisis in racing’s finances, the long-hovering cloud of still unresolved corruption allegations, the potential penury of the British Horseracing Board. When a horse wins a race as majestically and as stylishly as Motivator won this year’s Derby, it lifts us all out of the rut.
Motivator came into the race unbeaten, having won a Newmarket maiden last August, the Racing Post trophy at Doncaster and then the Dante Stakes at York this season. He was the winter favourite for the Derby. But before the race people were still willing to crab him. All his victories were on soft ground, it was pointed out, so would he be able to handle firmer ground at Epsom? Being by Montjeu, Motivator was of a nervous disposition, said the critics, and likely to be upset by the long drawn-out preliminaries at Epsom on Derby Day. And would he anyway last the Derby distance?
They were criticisms, I suspect, which would have been quickly brushed aside if Motivator had come from Coolmore or Godolphin or Sir Michael Stoute’s Freemason Lodge. But Motivator’s handler Michael Bell, a serious and well-respected trainer but not one, yet, with extensive patronage from the squillionaires, had never before had a Derby favourite in his yard.
That certainly did not worry Michael. In his straightforward way he continued telling us that he had a horse that was something special, a worthy favourite for the big race. And he himself did everything right. Convinced that Motivator was a proper 12-furlong horse, he pulled him out of the one-mile 2000 Guineas. For his trial race, he ran him in the Dante, which has now produced six Derby winners in 20 years. He took him to Epsom to see how he would handle the gradients. And he produced him spot-on on the day.
You suspect some prejudice? Well, OK, I did back him. But not for much and only at the very last minute, having been one of those who suspected Motivator might find the Epsom atmospherics too much. Instead, I found myself awed by the bold eye and muscular neck of a horse who walked around the parade ring as if the others were lucky to be sharing it with him. Like Linford Christie, he had both presence and attitude. I could see why John Warren, who bought Motivator as a yearling for £75,000 for his brother-in-law Harry Herbert, who runs the Ascot syndicate, said, ‘He used himself beautifully. You could not hear him when he walked, as his feet never seemed to touch the ground.’ At Epsom, Motivator was on his toes. But he was not twitchy. This was no nutcase. And as for Montjeu’s quirkiness, let us remember that he sired the runner-up Walk in The Park, as well.
I would have been equally pleased to see Dubawi prove a super horse and give Frankie Dettori that elusive Derby victory, and I take nothing away from Godolphin and Coolmore. We need their investment, we all admire their professionalism. It was somehow touching to watch Aidan O’Brien go through his hands-on saddling ritual with his four runners. First Almighty, then Grand Central, then Oratorio and finally Gypsy King were tacked up and then had their tails and quarters brushed by their painstaking trainer. How many others do that?
But there was something quintessentially English about Motivator’s victory. There were doubters, said his trainer. But he had looked a champion on the gallops and proved it on the racecourse. ‘I am so lucky to have this horse and not to have made a balls-up of it all.’ No need for such modesty, said former Derby-winning trainer Peter Walwyn, Michael Bell had done a magnificent job. And those who have worked with Bell at earlier stages of his career testify that the former Life Guard has never in fact lacked self-belief.
The horse didn’t do badly either. Shergar may have won by ten lengths, but few have managed the five-length margin achieved by Motivator. Said jockey Johnny Murtagh, ‘When he was in front for the last two furlongs it all went quiet. I just had a peek behind and I could not believe how far in front I was.’
Murtagh was lucky to be riding at all, having had a suspension for a riding offence cut by a day. And if Kieren Fallon hadn’t moved this season to Ireland, he would have continued his association with Motivator and ridden his third consecutive Derby winner.
You could not exactly say that Motivator’s majestic success was a victory for the man in the street. The original subscription for the RARC was £4,500 a head and £4,500 a year on top of that. Not that they’ll be complaining, with £700,000 of prize money to distribute. That is some distance away from the average betting-shop punter. But this was the first Classic race ever to be won by a horse owned by a syndicate and it is all a question of degree. Buy a horse and you buy a dream, and after Motivator’s success syndicates can dream the ultimate dream. I plan to have an early word with Mrs Oakley about trimming the housekeeping. After all, the RARC sub gets you free on-course food as well...