There have been some outstanding performances in the Derby since the turn of the century, but few have been as visually impressive as the victory of Motivator in 2005, in a season that promised much and began with glory in the Dante Stakes at York.
This high-class colt, from the first crop of the brilliant Montjeu, was given a text book ride by Johnny Murtagh, sitting just off the pace before settling matters with a brilliant turn of foot down that long home straight.
His Epsom success gave his trainer Michael Bell the biggest win of his career so far and provided tremendous joy for the syndicate of members from the Royal Ascot Racing Club.
Course Specialist was privileged to catch up with Michael earlier this year, to discuss the career of a brilliant racehorse who later left his mark on the sport by siring the brilliant dual Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner Treve.
“He arrived at Fitzroy House in November 2003 and was a very woolly, backward horse who didn’t fill the eye immediately,” Michael recalls.
“He was I would say, slightly on edge; a very kind horse in the stable, but he wanted to get his own way on the Heath. There had to be an element of give and take with him on the gallops,” he adds.
Having settled in to his new life, Motivator soon started to show signs of natural ability as a racehorse and Michael says that he nearly made his racecourse debut at Royal Ascot.
“I said to Harry Herbert (who managed the syndicate) in the May of his two year old season, that if we had a good two year old, it was him.
“We considered getting him going in the Chesham Stakes at Royal Ascot but after he had done a couple of pieces of work, we took a view to ease off and campaign him as a top back-end horse. At that stage he was just doing routine canters and it was evident that he had a lot of natural ability.”
It would in fact be August before the racing public got to see this exciting burgeoning talent – and the wait was more than worthwhile.
“We backed off his home work a little bit but by the time of his racecourse debut, we were happy that he was going to win. Kieren Fallon had ridden him work at home and really liked him,” Michael remembers.
Motivator’s debut came in the LearnDirect Maiden Stakes over a mile, on Newmarket’s July Course, in mid-August of 2004. It was a brilliant performance as he defeated ten rivals by six lengths and more.
“After his debut performance we wanted to run in the Group 2 Royal Lodge Stakes at Ascot, which would have been nice for the owners. But I walked the course and the ground was very quick for that time of the year.”
The decision was taken to not run Motivator and to instead wait patiently for the Group 1 Racing Post Trophy, at Doncaster, in late October.
“We had no hiccups and I think that his starting price reflected that on the day,” says Michael.
Despite his relative inexperience and lack of a run in the intervening two months, plenty of people had faith in Motivator and he won impressively, beating the Aidan O’Brien trained Albert Hall by two and a half lengths.
That performance immediately catapulted Motivator into Classic reckoning for the 2005 season and Michael Bell and the Royal Ascot Racing Club syndicate had plenty to ream about over a cold winter.
However, Kieren Fallon would not be part of the team, having accepted the prestigious role as stable jockey for Aidan O’Brien and the array of talent at Ballydoyle; which would ironically put him in direct competition with Motivator during 2005.
In Fallon’s absence, Johnny Murtagh came to ride Motivator in exercise at Newmarket – and provided some invaluable advice.
“We were considering running him in the Guineas and I remember he did an outstanding bit of work in March, working with a horse called Cool Panic, who went on to win a three year old handicap at Doncaster by four lengths in early April. However at home, Motivator had worked all over him.
“We talked with Johnny after the gallop and he suggested that we train him for the Derby rather than the Guineas, he said that the horse had given him that sort of feel.”
To that point, Johnny Murtagh had already ridden two Epsom Derby winners, so to have the services of such an experienced jockey, with such a great understanding of this unique racecourse, was an added advantage.
Instead of the Two Thousand Guineas, Motivator made his seasonal debut later in May in the Dante Stakes at York, beating The Geezer by 1 ½ lengths, with the Guineas runner-up Kandidate the best part of nine lengths behind.
Motivator was now very much in the public eye, as Derby favourite.
“There was added pressure but I tried to make a point of enjoying it. There is more pressure when you have a yard of empty boxes or when your best two year old gets beaten in a seller. So it was a different kind, the right kind of pressure to be experiencing,” Michael reflects.
“We thought that he had every chance of getting the trip as his sire had stayed a mile and a half well. So there were very little stamina worries.
“In regards to the undulations of Epsom, you need a horse with a bit of natural speed to travel well and to be on the bridle makes a huge difference.
“We also took Motivator to Epsom for a canter round, on the day of their Derby Trial, which was before the Dante.”
And so Derby Day arrived, on Saturday, June 5th, 2005.
Motivator faced a field of twelve rivals, with the Aidan O’Brien pair Gypsy King and Oratorio attracting plenty of interest, while another Irish runner Fracas had won the Sandown Park Trial. Dubawi, a son of Dubai Millennium, had lost his unbeaten record when veering across the track in the Two Thousand Guineas, but had subsequently won the Irish equivalent. The Geezer was back in opposition, while the highly-regarded Walk In The Park came over from France.
“Obviously we wanted to get him in the box seat, not leading too early, but also not settled at the back of the field. And the race went like poetry in motion for us.”
The white-faced Hattan pulled his way into the early lead with Motivator right up with the pace.
Settling down, Hattan held a narrow lead from Motivator, with Gypsy King to the inside and Grand Central racing wider.
As the field began to move left, one of the Ballydoyle outsiders, Almighty, was brought up on the inside to take up the running and inject so extra pace.
As the runners began to race downhill, Almighty and Hattan continued to lead, with Motivator on their heels, but nicely settled, three-wide and out of trouble. To the inside, Gypsy King virtually matched strides with him and then came Dubawi on the inside.
Racing around Tattenham Corner, Almighty began to pack pedal and Hattan led into the home straight, with Motivator travelling very well behind him and then Gypsy King.
Hattan was under pressure at the three furlong pole and it was a matter of when Johnny Murtagh asked Motivator for his effort. The inevitable happened at the two furlong pole, as Motivator stormed into the lead, with Hattan and Dubawi trying in vain to keep in touch with him.
As his rivals toiled, Motivator opened up an unassailable lead and the final furlong was a celebratory if lonely gallop, as he passed the post five lengths clear of Walk In The Park, who had come from the back of the field to pass the rest of the field. But there were no hard luck stories to this Derby, no excuses and no real second place. This Derby belonged to Motivator, who had proved himself in a different league to his Epsom rivals.
“He put the race to bed in about 50 yards,” Michael remembers. “I watched the race from near to where Clare Balding and Willie Carson used to do the BBC broadcast and I remember I was shaking like a leaf when he went to the front.
“To win the Derby was something, but with no danger was something else.
“In the evening we had the kids and took a gang of us to the Fountain, a Chinese restaurant close to the yard.
“With a syndicate, there is no direct owner, although of course we were closely involved with Harry Herbert and John Warren on the ownership side. But there is no direct owner, for whom this Derby winner is their pride and joy – instead there were about 200 to 230 delirious syndicate members.”
A month later Motivator aimed to maintain his unbeaten record in the Coral Eclipse Stakes at Sandown Park.
However, the fates conspired against him on that occasion, as he dropped down in distance, but was beaten half a length by Oratorio, who had finished 25 lengths back in tenth in the Derby, but would prove a much better horse than that run suggested.
“We were very unlucky on that occasion and it was well known that Motivator liked a bit of cut in the ground.
“It rained everywhere but Esher; the night before they had been forecast significant rain, so Sandown Park didn’t water, but the ground on the day was very much on the quick side and we were beaten by a faster horse on quicker ground.”
Motivator had a little break after the Eclipse and continued to thrive in the build-up to the Irish Champion Stakes in September. Once again though, Oratorio proved his master on the day at Leopardstown, beating Motivator by half a length.
“Motivator was back on form that day, but playing away from home, against that team (Ballydoyle), who had home advantage. We had a pacemaker in the race but needed one who could lead long enough, but it is always hard taking on that organisation. He still ran a huge race though.”
Motivator had just one more start and his finale was to be on the stunning Bois De Boulogne, at Longchamp Racecourse, in Europe’s leading race, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
However, the glorious colours of this setting reflect the change in weather and Michael felt that similarly, Motivator was coming to the end of a long season.
“Come Arc Day, he was just beginning to go in his coat and was not the horse he had been in June. I wasn’t so happy with him.”
Even so, in finishing fifth, he was beaten by some outstanding horses, with Hurricane Run winning the race from the Gold Cup winner Westerner, previous Arc winner Bago and subsequent Breeders’ Cup winner Shirocco. It was no disgrace to bow out in such illustrious company.
Whilst Motivator might not have won the Arc, he went on to sire one of the great Arc winners of the modern era in Treve, who would win the race twice for good measure.
Michael didn’t get to train Treve, but has enjoyed training several of his progeny:
“Prompter is probably the best of them I have trained, although he gets lots of horses rated at the thick end of 100. He certainly stamps his stock and they all need to be handled with care.”
Michael has gone on to train plenty of top class horses since Motivator; Red Evie and Art Connoisseur were Group 1 winners, while Sariska was a brilliant filly who won the English and Irish Oaks in 2009. More recently, Big Orange has entered the hearts of the racing public.
However, Motivator’s exploits unsurprisingly sit high in Michael’s affections when he reflects on the horses he has trained:
“He was a horse that stayed and had a high cruising speed and was very clean-winded. He had great lung capacity and needed very little work.
“He was just a very natural athlete. Because he was slightly delicate mentally, it helped him a little bit that he didn’t need too much work to keep fit. That helped him achieve what he did.
“The Derby is the pinnacle and it would have taken a very good horse to have beaten him on that day,” he concludes.