Trainer Graham Motion achieved every trainer's career goal last year when he saddled Animal Kingdom for an upset victory in the Kentucky Derby, and the flurry of activity surrounding his talented three-year-olds at Palm Meadows Training Center could be viewed as a symptom of a bad case of Derby Fever to anyone unaware of the 47-year-old conditioner's patient and somewhat conservative training program.
"Just because we won it last year, I don't think we're any more pushing to get there," he said. "If anything, it makes it easier because having won the race -- which I never imagined I would do at this stage of my career -- maybe I'm a little less (anxious). I want to be there for the right reasons."
Animal Kingdom was a late-developing colt, who finished a head second in a turf allowance race at Gulfstream before earning a trip to Churchill Downs with an upset victory in the Grade 3 Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park.
"I just don't want to get carried away trying to get back there. I don't want to change my philosophy. Last year, we were adamant that the horses had to get us there, and Animal Kingdom took us there," said Motion, who saddled the son of Leroidesanimaux for Barry Irwin's Team Valor International. "Barry was very much on the same page. I think it's going to be the same this year. Neither one of us is going to be all out to run in the Derby. The horses will have to show us they belong."
Having already loaded Lucky Chappy onto a Dubai-bound plane for a start in the Group 2 UAE Derby on March 31, Motion was preparing for the departure of Howe Great and Went the Day Well to Kentucky for their respective starts in major preps for this year's Kentucky Derby.
Went the Day Well will have his opportunity Saturday to show that he belongs in the Derby over Turfway Park's Polytrack surface in the $500,000 Spiral. Unlike Animal Kingdom, who scored by nearly three lengths in the 2011 Spiral, Went the Day Well has proved himself on dirt, having broken his maiden over Gulfstream's main track on March 3.
"If he runs well in the Spiral, he obviously handles the dirt," Motion said of the Proud Citizen colt.
Howe Great broke his maiden on dirt at Parx before blossoming this winter on Gulfstream Park's turf course, over which he captured the Kitten's Joy Stakes on January 21 and the Grade 3 Palm Beach Stakes on March 11. The dark bay son of Hat Trick will switch over to Keeneland's Polytrack in the Grade 1, $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes on April 14.
"I think, ultimately he'll prefer the grass, but I wouldn't totally rule out another shot on dirt, depending on how he runs in the Blue Grass," Motion said. "Howe Great, if he runs well in the Blue Grass, we'll take the angle we took with Animal Kingdom. He'd have to go to Churchill to work and see how he handled it."
Motion didn't commit Animal Kingdom to the Derby until the chestnut sparkled in the workout over the Churchill strip during Derby week.
Lucky Chappy, who finished second behind Howe Great in the Kitten's Joy before flying cross-country to be nosed out by Daddy Nose Best in the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields, is the most experienced of Motion's three-year-olds. After starting his career with three races in Italy, he finished third in the Grade 3 Bourbon Stakes and fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf last year.
Should the Irish-bred son of High Chaparral run well in the UAE Derby over the synthetic Tapeta surface at Meydan, Motion might consider running his well-traveled colt in the Kentucky Derby?
"Never say, 'never,' right? It would seem unlikely, but I wouldn't totally rule it out," he said.
Meanwhile, Animal Kingdom's scheduled trip for the Group 1, $10 million Dubai World Cup was canceled when a stress fracture was discovered in his left hind leg. The injury won't require surgery, but will keep the Derby winner out of training for 90 days.
"He walks a couple of turns at the end of the morning every day. He'll ship up with my horses to Fair Hill around the 6th or 7th of April," Motion said. "The plan is 90 days. We'll reevaluate when we get back to Fair Hill. Dean Richardson of New Bolton will do another bone scan on him. From there we'll know where we stand, but 90 days is the normal recovery period."
Animal Kingdom raised his trainer's expectations for a successful 2012 campaign with a sharp two-length victory in a turf allowance at Gulfstream Park on February 18. It was his first start since undergoing surgery for an unrelated injury in his left hind leg last June.
"It's quite a common injury and something he should get over, but it doesn't make it any less disappointing when you come this far, and he came out of his race so good," Motion said.