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Derby Winner Animal Kingdom Thriving At Fair Hill

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ELKTON, Md. (AP) — Graham Motion loves being surrounded by acres of lush grass while working in peaceful solitude at the Fair Hill Training Center.

Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom does, too, it seems.

Which is why Motion is strongly considering waiting until Saturday to ship his chestnut colt 40 miles south to Pimlico Race Course for the Preakness.

After watching Animal Kingdom gallop 1½ miles Monday in relative obscurity, Motion decided there was no rush to move his horse from spacious Herringswell Stables to a bit cramped Stall 40 at Pimlico, the traditional home of the Derby winner.

“I’m leaning more toward Saturday morning,” Motion said. “I have quite a few horses to run on Saturday, and that’s what they’re going to do. I don’t really know why I need to do anything differently with (Animal Kingdom). He’s very happy here and I just want to keep things as normal as they can be.”

Motion is the first Maryland-based trainer to win the Derby since Michael Matz saddled Barbaro in 2006. Before Barbaro tragically broke his right hind leg in the Preakness, the undefeated bay colt enjoyed munching on buttercups and running free on the heavenly green fields of Fair Hill, an equine oasis nestled in the hills of this rural community.

It’s the perfect place for Motion and Animal Kingdom, who won the Derby at odds of 20-1.

“Pimlico, unfortunately, is pretty much tarmac everywhere,” Motion said. “Here we’ve got this beautiful property where we can do so many different things. The horses can get turned out in small paddocks, and we’ve got plenty of pasture they can graze on. It’s just a much more natural environment for the horses.”

Born in England, the 46-year-old Motion still has an accent after decades of living in the United States. He spent only one summer overseas as a horseman, yet he’s constantly asked how his European roots have influenced his methods on the track.

Although Motion insisted he’s no different from his peers, he acknowledged that Fair Hill is a reminder of a place back home.

“I spent a summer in France. I was brought up in Europe, but I never really worked in racing there,” Motion said. “My way of training is more about what I learned from John Sheppard, who’s in Pennsylvania. Everybody wants to emphasize the European angle. But I don’t do things in a European manner. This just happens to be a much more European-style facility.”

Motion long ago made a name for himself in Maryland, but Animal Kingdom’s win at Churchill Downs earned him fame around the world. The victory was even more noteworthy because it came after his other entrant in the Derby, Wood Memorial winner Toby’s Corner, was scratched days before the race.

More than a week later, Motion still shakes his head in amazement when recounting the feeling of saddling up the Kentucky Derby champion.

“It’s fairy tale stuff,” he said. “The Derby, it’s almost an unreasonable goal to set out to win because so many things have to align. I think it’s almost unfair to put that kind of pressure on yourself. For us, I just feel like it was fate, it was our turn.”

Which is not to say luck had anything to do with it.

“He was the best horse,” Motion said. “He did it very easily, in fact.”

And now comes the challenge of winning the Triple Crown, a feat last accomplished by Affirmed in 1978.

“I don’t even want to think about it. I’m excited to go to the Preakness with the Derby winner. That’s something I never expected to do in my lifetime,” Motion said. “That’s a thrill as it is. Obviously you have to think about the Triple Crown, but I’m not going to put that type of pressure on myself. The horse is doing great and I’m excited to run him on Saturday, as long as he stays doing the way he’s doing right now.”

Maybe it’s the surroundings, or maybe it’s just that Animal Kingdom is a special horse, but his workout sessions this week have been crisp and better than Motion could have expected.

“Everything has come really smoothly,” he said. “He’s kind of dictated what I do with him, and he was ready to start doing more. That’s why we’re doing more with him now. He’ll probably have a couple of strong gallops leading up to the race.”

Three reporters spoke with Motion on Monday. At the Preakness, he and Animal Kingdom will be the focus of the racing world.

Bob Baffert, trainer of 10th-place finisher Midnight Interlude, knows his main competition on Saturday will come from the horse that beat him soundly in Kentucky.

“Animal Kingdom is definitely the horse to beat,” Baffert said. “He was the best horse in the Derby, no question.”

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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