Graham Motion aims to continue Virginia Derby streak

Trainer Graham Motion has won the last three runnings of the Grade 3 Virginia Derby.

Which have taken place under two different names. At two different tracks. In two different states. Over the span of five racing seasons.

“That’s an interesting statistic,” Motion admitted September 3 on Off to the Races Radio. He’ll have a chance to run his streak to four in Tuesday’s renewal of Virginia’s biggest race.

For good measure, the victories themselves have been markedly different. The streak began in 2017 when, with Colonial closed and the race called the Commonwealth Derby and conducted at Maryland’s Laurel Park, Just Howard wore down favored Voodoo Song to win by three parts of a length in a track-record time of 1:45.81 for nine furlongs.

Two years later, with Colonial open once again, Motion’s English Bee prevailed by a head in a stunningly sluggish time of 1:52.94 – seven seconds slower than Just Howard had run it. Credit Swap had gotten out to the lead and set dawdling fractions – 52.66 for a half-mile, 1:18.29 for three quarters – before English Bee took over inside the furlong grounds and just held off Jais’s Solitude.

Colonial lost its 2020 race meet to Covid-19 prior to the Virginia Derby, leaving Motion the defending champ for another year, and last year his Wootton Asset powered home to win by three-quarters in 1:46.79.

“I remember that Jose [Ortiz] gave him a beautiful ride, for one thing,” Motion said of Wootton Asset’s win. “He’s a very nice horse. He actually ended up having an injury after I took him out to California after we ran him in Virginia and he came up with a little issue. So he ended up having time off, and he’s almost ready to run again. He’s a pretty cool horse.”

Motion’s Virginia Derby entrant this year is Royal Patronage, who’s 5-1 on the morning line. Bred in France, Royal Patronage is a son of Wootton Bassett – also the sire of Wootton Asset. Royal Patronage won a pair of graded stakes as a two-year-old in Great Britain. 

“Certainly this horse has run in some top-class races in Europe,” Motion said. 

Wootton Asset won the 2021 Virginia Derby. Photo Coady Photography.

He’s lost his two North American starts to date, beaten a total of less than five lengths in a pair of Grade 1 events, the Belmont Derby and Saratoga Derby Invitational, with troubled trips.

“He came over for his previous connections. Charlie Johnson brought him over to run at Belmont in the Belmont Derby where he ran a credible race, getting beaten just over a length,” Motion said. “I decided to run him back up here at Saratoga, where I am now, and again, he ran a very decent race, only beaten three lengths.”

Motion doesn’t often employ jockey Joel Rosario, but he’ll give the rider, whom he calls “one of the top riders in the country,” a leg up on Royal Patronage, who will leave from the rail, a draw that doesn’t bother Motion at all.

“I’m not going to be giving [Rosario] a lot of instructions, that’s for sure,” Motion laughed. “Turf racing is all about saving ground as much as you can, just find the shortest way to the wire. Hopefully by being drawn inside, that should give Joel a good trip.”

Motion also has a trio of runners aimed at the $200,000 Virginia Oaks. Christiana Stakes winner Sparkle Blue is 8-1 on the morning line with Jeremy Rose up, while Pharoah’s Song is 15-1 and Candy Light is 20-1.

“I think that’s a pretty competitive race,” Motion acknowledged. “I’m taking a shot with a couple of these, obviously.”

Sparkle Blue is the most interesting of his threesome. Last time out, with blinkers added, she earned a hard-fought victory in the Christiana Stakes on the Delaware Oaks undercard at Delaware Park. A homebred for Catherine Parke, who co-owns the daughter of Hard Spun with Augustin Stable, she’ll get Lasix added today.

“She’s a half-sister to Shared Account and Sharing, both of whom won the Breeders’ Cup, so she has some pretty good credentials,” Motion said. “I thought Jeremy gave her a great ride last time, so I’m glad he can stick with us.”

  • Just Howard powered to victory in the G3 Commonwealth Derby Photo by Laurie Asseo.
  • English Bee held off Jais's Solitude to win the G3 Virginia Derby. Photo by Coady Photography.
  • English Bee won the James Murphy Stakes at Pimlico. Photo by Dottie Miller.
  • Just Howard (inside) held off Bonus Points to win the Caveat Stakes. Photo by Laurie Asseo.