Welcome to another edition of America’s Best Racing’s Main Track. Each Tuesday in this space we spotlight the most meaningful story of the past week, detailing a story that stands out because of its importance or perhaps the emotional response it generates.
Looking ahead, if you believe there’s a story this week that should be featured in next Tuesday’s edition of the Main Track, let us know by tweeting it to @ABRLive using the hashtag #ABRMainTrack.
As for this week, we are focusing on the heartwarming story of a victory in the Wood Memorial that punched a ticket to the Kentucky Derby for the unlikely combination of a jockey who had been told he would never ride again, an 86-year-old owner heading to the run for the roses for the first time, and a 3-year-old racehorse, bred in New Jersey of all places, who had been written off as a leading Triple Crown candidate just a month earlier.
“I’m just happy to be a part of a great story,” said trainer Graham Motion, the maestro that brought everything together in New York’s definitive Kentucky Derby prep.
For decades, the Wood Memorial has enjoyed a special place in New York racing, with Triple Crown winners Secretariat and Seattle Slew using it as their springboard to Triple Crown glory, and in Saturday’s 93rd renewal at Aqueduct jockey Rajiv Maragh was quickly swept up by the emotion of the moment.
As he guided Isabelle de Tomaso’s Irish War Cry across the finish line to claim a decisive 3 ½-length victory in the $750,000 Wood, the 31-year-old jockey was euphoric as he stood in the saddle and pumped his fist and whip into the air.
“I was overcome with joy,” he said.
But then, as Irish War Cry galloped out, no more than a sixteenth of a mile after the race, Maragh was hit with another jolt of emotion that rocked him as if he had been on the receiving end of Conor McGregor’s best finishing blow.
“A few strides past the wire, I got a big rush of emotion that overwhelmed me,” Maragh said the following day at Aqueduct. “I had never felt that before after a race. Tears were coming out of my eyes. The road to get there was so difficult and I had just won the Wood Memorial. I was trying to contain myself but I couldn’t. So many thoughts were running through my head. I was getting flashbacks of everything me and my wife (Angie) and family went through. It was like a collage in my mind.”
On Saturday afternoon, Maragh scripted a new chapter in an uplifting comeback tale worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster.
On July 10, 2015, in the fifth race at Belmont Park, Maragh was riding Yourcreditisgood when the filly clipped heels and tumbled to the ground. Maragh sustained four fractured vertebrae, a broken rib and collapsed lung in the horrific spill, suffering injuries so severe that following surgery he received opinions from two doctors that he should retire from racing.
Undaunted, Maragh visited a third doctor.
“I found a third doctor,” Maragh said, “and he told me I could return to riding, but it would take a long time to recover.”
As much as Maragh put all of his mental and physical energy into his comeback, those days were filled with more pain and the strain of physical therapy than he could have imagined.
“The pain was excruciating,” he said. “It was my whole body. I had never been in that much pain for month after month. It was so difficult but thankfully my wife was an amazing help to me.”
All the while, Maragh never lost sight of what gave him the inspiration to endure those dark and painful days.
“When I was out and down and things were looking grim, these are the days I dreamed about. It was all about winning a race like Wood, winning the Derby and the best races in the world,” said Maragh, who has 1,729 wins (through April 9) in a career that started in 2003 and has included back-to-back Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint wins aboard Groupie Doll in 2012-13. “That’s what motivated me to work hard and to come back and keep on riding. There were a lot of times when I was down and it seemed insurmountable for me to come back but thankfully now I’m happy to be able to do what I love to do and win these big races. My dreams are coming true.”
Maragh’s dreams of resuming his career became reality last year on Nov. 4 when he rode Questeq to a ninth-place finish in the sixth race at Aqueduct, nearly 16 months after suffering his devastating injuries. It took the Jamaican-born rider 27 tries to win his first race after the spill but he soon regained his top form and finished fourth at Aqueduct’s recently winter meet with 39 wins.
Those results caught the eye of Motion, who won a trio of Grade 1 stakes with Main Sequence when Maragh rode the 2014 grass and older horse champion. Puzzled by Irish War Cry’s seventh-place finish in the Fountain of Youth after an impressive victory in the Holy Bull, Motion targeted the Wood for the colt’s Derby acid test and lined up Maragh to ride him.
“Rajiv was a big part of the win,” Motion said on Monday, two days after Irish War Cry, second in this week’s National Thoroughbred Racing Association 3-year-old poll, won his fourth race in five career starts. “We had him gallop the horse in New York because I wanted him to have confidence in the horse and I had never done that before. But Rajiv was so willing to gallop him Wednesday, Thursday and Friday leading up to the race and that was a big factor in the horse’s win.”
Maragh gave Irish War Cry a flawless ride in the Wood to record a victory that netted the New Jersey-bred an additional 100 points in the road to the Kentucky Derby series. With a total of 110 points, Irish War Cry is assured of a spot in the run for the roses, and will provide Maragh with his fifth and, given what he has overcome in the last 21 months, his most satisfying and emotionally rewarding start in the mile and a quarter classic.
“I don’t think people quite understand what Rajiv recovered from,” Motion said. “I saw Rajiv when he was at his worst and I went out to dinner with him the first time he was cleared to do that. I have such respect for him and everyone who comes back from these incredible injuries. Most people don’t understand how mentality and physically debilitating they can be. I’m amazed he returned as soon as he did. It shows tremendous courage and a strong will to do it. I have tremendous respect for that.”
As improbable as it may have seemed a year ago that Maragh could somehow wind up in the opening leg of the Triple Crown on a top contender, the odds were stacked equally high against the chances of de Tomaso and her small New Jersey-based breeding operation being represented in the Derby.
Now 86, de Tomaso is the daughter of Amory L. Haskell, the founder, first president and chairman of the Monmouth Jockey Club and namesake of Monmouth Park’s Grade 1 Haskell Invitational, and horse racing has played a major role in her life.
Living in Italy and Florida, she enjoyed a good measure of success in European racing. Yet she never experienced the thrill of owning a Kentucky Derby starter until a speedy son of Curlin out of Irish Sovereign, one of a handful of New Jersey-based mares she owns, made it possible by handing her a victory in the Wood and a guaranteed spot in the starting gate at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.
“She was thrilled about winning the Wood,” said Ellie Glaccum, de Tomaso’s grand-niece who represented her at the race. “She said it’s her once in a lifetime moment.”
It’s a moment that will become 87 years in the making when de Tomaso celebrates her birthday in May, and it stands just four years older than the day when Cavalcade won the 1934 run for the roses and became the second and most recent New Jersey-bred to win the Kentucky Derby.
For a state with a 3-year-old crop of just 114 foals, the notion of ending that streak would seem folly, but with the indomitable will that carried Rajiv Maragh, Isabelle de Tomaso and Irish War Cry to victory in the Wood, it would hardly be a shock if a seemingly impossible dream does indeed come true.
The Also-Eligible List
Here are some of the other stories that made for a lively week in the U.S. Thoroughbred racing industry: