Trainer Graham Motion and jockey Rajiv Maragh have become very close friends over the last few years. It did not have to turn out that way.
In 2011, Motion won the Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom, and Maragh finished third on Mucho Macho Man. It was an incident in that year’s Belmont Stakes that could have ended this friendship before it began.
Maragh had been taken off Mucho Macho Man following a sixth-place finish in the Preakness, in which Animal Kingdom finished second behind Shackleford. In the Belmont, Maragh rode Isn’t He Perfect, a 30-1 shot who had drawn post 11 in the 12-horse field.
Mucho Macho Man, with his new rider, Ramon Dominguez, was in post 10. Animal Kingdom, under John Velazquez, was in post 9. Isn’t He Perfect broke alertly, but a few strides out of the gate, he came over on Mucho Macho Man, who in turn bumped with Animal Kingdom.
Animal Kingdom stumbled, Velazquez’s left foot came out of the iron, and Animal Kingdom was last early. He rallied to finish sixth. Animal Kingdom was later diagnosed with a hind-leg fracture that cost him the remainder of his 3-year-old season.
Velazquez accused Maragh of purposely allowing his horse to come over on Mucho Macho Man, starting the chain reaction. The New York stewards suspended Maragh for seven days.
Maragh, recalling the event recently, said that while he made an error in judgment, he was not being vindictive.
“The fact people were saying it was premeditated because [Mucho Macho Man] was inside of me, I felt really attacked from that aspect,” Maragh said. “But also I knew it was my error, and I wanted to stand up to my error. It wasn’t an intentional move to try and harm somebody else or harm another horse.
“I felt so bad and disappointed with my ride at the end of it. I think that incident cost Animal Kingdom a chance to win the race for sure, and for that, I was very disappointed.”
Motion trained Animal Kingdom for Team Valor International, a racing partnership. While Motion said he wasn’t upset with Maragh, he said others in the partnership felt differently.
“I can’t hold a grudge against another jockey for one split-second incident that I’m not sure was even premeditated, but has it crossed my mind, sure,” Motion said. “Quite often, it crosses my mind, and there are some guys in that partnership who do hold some animosity toward him for that. It’s one of those things that was incredibly disappointing at the time, but I never really held a grudge against him for it.”
On Saturday, Motion, 52, and Maragh, 31, will team together to try to win the 143rd Kentucky Derby with Irish War Cry. Maragh, who rode Irish War Cry to victory in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, has overcome giant obstacles to get back to competing at the highest level.
Maragh missed 16 months due to a broken back, broken ribs, and a collapsed lung suffered in a spill at Belmont in July 2015.
Nine months before that spill, he broke his arm during the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park, sidelining him for four months and costing him some great opportunities at that year’s Breeders’ Cup. That included riding the Motion-trained Main Sequence, on whom Maragh had won three Grade 1 stakes in 2014. Ironically, Velazquez rode that horse to victory in the Breeders’ Cup Turf.
Maragh said he remembers laying on the Belmont track that Sept. 27 day and looking at his arm – the bone having broken through the skin – in disbelief.
“Wicked Strong, Main Sequence, I rode Frosted first time out, and he ran second,” Maragh recalled. “My arm was sticking up, and I’m looking at my arm, and I just kept saying to myself, ‘I can’t believe this is happening.’ ”
Last July, Maragh was virtually disabled when he was thrown from his mount, Yourcreditisgood, after jockey Ruben Silvera and his mount drifted into Maragh’s path in a race at Belmont. Maragh fractured four vertebrae, broke two ribs and had a collapsed lung.
Initially, Maragh was going to be out six months. Ultimately, he was out 16 months before returning last November.
For the first nine months, Maragh had to wear a body brace all day, except to sleep and shower. One of the first occasions Maragh remembers leaving the house with his wife, Angie, was to have dinner with Motion and his wife, Anita.
“Not a lot of people I wanted to see me in that state,” Maragh said. “Obviously, I was in a bad physical state. If I ever thought about going back to riding, I didn’t want people to have that kind of image of me. But he’s such a gentleman and a great person that I didn’t have that worry about being around him. He always supported me when I was down, and that helped lift my spirits.”
Motion said there were times when he doubted if Maragh could make it back to race-riding. He said the only reason he believed there was a chance is because Maragh was convinced he would.
“I have tons of respect for him,” Motion said. “I enjoy his company. We hang out with him and his wife sometimes. Going through the injuries perhaps made it more of a friendship than perhaps it would have been. Having watched him struggle through that, we tried to support him.”
About halfway through his recovery, Maragh said he went deaf in one ear for about two months. Doctors told him the only way they could test the nerves in his ear was postmortem.
Maragh was treated with oral steroids for a week. The next step was to undergo treatment in which a needle would be stuck into his eardrum.
Maragh said he recalled one day sitting in a doctor’s waiting room to have the first injection: “The guy opens the door and says, ‘Rajiv Maragh.’ I said, ‘I gotta go,’ and I ran out the door.”
Maragh said he never went back. His hearing eventually returned.
It was in the morning at Belmont Park last October when Maragh first got back on a horse. He didn’t ride a race until Nov. 4 at Aqueduct. Maragh won with just two of his 62 mounts at the Aqueduct fall meet. He then decided to ride the winter in New York rather than head to Gulfstream Park. Maragh won 48 races during Aqueduct’s inner-track meet, good for fourth in the standings.
Maragh knew that by staying in New York, he likely would be giving up the opportunity to land a good 3-year-old for the Triple Crown. He remembered watching Irish War Cry, under Joel Rosario, win the Holy Bull at Gulfstream in January and telling his brother, “Graham Motion has the best 3-year-old in the country.”
When Irish War Cry ran an inexplicably bad race in the Fountain of Youth in February, things changed. Motion took Irish War Cry to his Fair Hill base in Maryland to train for the Wood Memorial. Wanting a New York rider, he tabbed Maragh.
Under New York state rules, horses for the Wood had to be on the grounds three days before the race. Motion shipped Irish War Cry to Aqueduct and had Maragh get on the horse for three straight mornings, including the day of the race.
Motion said there was a misconception that Irish War Cry was a one-dimensional speed horse, and he wanted Maragh to be confident that that wasn’t the case.
“You can tell someone until you’re blue in the face that a horse is not going to get rank with him, but there’s nothing like actually getting on him yourself,” Motion said. “This horse is such a cool horse to get on in the morning. He’s so push-button. That’s why I wanted him to get on him in the morning.”
Maragh felt that helped him win the Wood Memorial. Irish War Cry broke from the outside post in the eight-horse field and was third early. He moved into second down the backstretch, and Maragh waited to ask his horse to go after the front-running Battalion Runner. Irish War Cry won the Wood by a widening 3 1/2 lengths.
Maragh said that by getting on Irish War Cry in the morning, “it gave me the confidence in the horse to do whatever I wanted to do.”
“So, when I broke out of the gate, I let him run out of there, establish his position, and get him to relax that way instead of trying to fight with him or try to force him to cover up behind horses,” Maragh said.
That Maragh has a chance to win the Kentucky Derby is surreal enough for him. That he could win it for Motion makes it all the better.
“Graham’s one of the people who always wanted the best for me,” Maragh said. “His family has been great to my family. What was a working relationship has turned into what’s like a family. He and his wife have opened their arms to my family, and it makes everything more special.”