“He was a little choked up,” said Rolls of Motion, who stayed behind in Lexington, Ky., to saddle horses he was running at Keeneland Race Course.
Irish War Cry, a New Jersey-bred who displayed great promise in sweeping his first three starts, had rebounded strongly from the only disappointing race of his career to wear down Battalion Runner and win the Grade 2 Wood by 3 ½ commanding lengths.
As much as the triumph meant to Motion and Rolls, jockey Rajiv Maragh was even more jubilant as he reflected on his own comeback. He was sidelined for 16 months after a horrific accident on July 10, 2015, that left him so desperate for air that he needed two tanks of oxygen during the ambulance ride to the hospital.
“I’ve never been so emotional after a race in my life,” said Maragh, 31, “as I was after this race.”
Maragh’s road to recovery had been extremely difficult. He sustained compressed fractures of four vertebrae, a broken rib and a collapsed lung when Yourcreditisgood clipped heels with another horse and landed on top of him. He was placed in an upper body brace for nine months.
Irish War Cry’s path there seemed anything but certain after he ran a faltering seventh in the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes on March 4 at Florida’s Gulfstream Park. Not only did he absorb his first defeat, but he was dusted by 21 ¾ lengths.
It was a stunning, perplexing defeat, since in his prior start, the son of Curlin had rolled wire to wire to take the Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes by 3 ¾ lengths on Feb. 4 at Gulfstream. In the Fountain of Youth, he pressed the pace set by Three Rules, only to tire badly.
It was an outcome that still defies explanation.
“We don’t really know. There was nothing wrong with him physically,” Rolls said. “We put a line through the race.”
The decision was made to send Irish War Cry to Fair Hills Training Center in Elkton, Md., to prepare him for the $750,000 Wood. Rolls and Motion were not sure what to expect in the last major Derby prep in New York.
They saw the Derby horse they suspected all along that they had.
“He was perfect,” Rolls exulted. “Rajiv just got him into a rhythm and got him to do whatever he needed him to do.”
Irish War Cry, bred and owned by Isabelle de Tomaso, sat a stalking second to Battalion Runner, a Todd Pletcher trainee making a jump from the allowance ranks in only his fourth career start. He tackled the front-runner at the top of the stretch before gradually kicking away. He completed the mile and an eighth in 1:50.91 for Maragh, who was aboard him for the first time.
Cloud Computing, making only his third start for trainer Chad Brown, took third. He was followed by True Timber, Bonus Points, Glennrichment, Mo Town and Stretch’s Stone. According to the Churchill Downs points system used to determine what will likely be a full field of 20 horses for the Kentucky Derby, the Wood winner received 100 points and the runner-up 40. Both totals are typically enough for a starting berth. Third place in the Wood was worth 20 points; 10 points went to the fourth-place finisher.
Irish War Cry and Maragh will advance as one of the feel-good stories of this year’s Derby. But Rolls was not about to look ahead to Louisville.
“I don’t want to get ahead of myself. Today, today, today,” he said, understanding what a wonderful day it had been.