His first summer after college was over, along with his writing and handicapping job for the seasonal Saratoga Special. The world economy was tanking in September 2008, and prospects were scarce for the Long Islander with a communications degree from the College of Charleston.
All right, what next? John Panagot figured he had nothing to lose, so he decided to take a shot. He'd been doing that forever, and he hit enough of them for Oyster Bay High School to make all-conference three consecutive years from 2001-03. So the Baymen's former 6-2 small forward got up his nerve and approached the big-time trainer. He'd seen how well Graham Motion treated his help, so . . .
More horse racing
"He came to me after the Saratoga meet and said he'd really like to come work for us,'' Motion said. "He asked if we would have something for him, and I said if you're really that keen, come along.''
Panagot, 25, started at the bottom, walking horses. Two and a half years later, he's a valued member of Team Motion, on top of the thoroughbred world after Animal Kingdom's runaway in the Kentucky Derby.
"Not a day goes by when I don't think, 'I'm here, this is really shocking,' '' Panagot said. "I've learned that in this business, you have to take shots, or you won't get anywhere. We just won the Derby, which is pretty unbelievable.''
Motion has 124 horses at Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, Md., and his religiously hands-on approach is labor intensive. That's where Panagot comes in. He keeps track of the stable's entries and serves as Motion's go-between with racing secretaries, jockey agents and owners. He nominates horses for stakes, trying to place them where they have the best chance to win.
"Basically, we've created a position for John and a title,'' Motion said. "We call him the stable manager. There are so many tracks we have access to from here that it's hard for me to keep up with the extra races they write every day. Every morning, around 9 or 10, we discuss what we're going to enter that day and John takes care of the entries.''
Motion races in New York, Kentucky, Florida, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, Delaware and Virginia, so on any given day, there are "eight or nine'' overnight entry sheets for Panagot to study. "In America, not many guys like me are working for trainers,'' he said. "In Europe, there are a lot of them. It's really thrilling that somebody like Graham will accept my input.''
Panagot spent "five or six years'' devising his JGP system, which assigns each horse a number by factoring in class level, surface switches, speed, pace and track biases.
His background is a 180 from his boss'. Motion grew up on a stud farm near Newmarket, headquarters of English racing and breeding. Panagot got the horse bug "at 7 or 8'' on the annual family vacation to Saratoga Springs. John Sr., Betsy, John and older sisters Stephanie and Leslie stayed with Jim and Sonja Grassi of Oyster Bay at a house near the track.
Panagot loved leisurely mornings on the backstretch, but as he got older, what hooked him was handicapping and betting.
"I'm really competitive,'' he said. "I think that's what drove me to racing. I want to win everything. It wasn't the horses; it was the competition."
Motion's painstaking horsemanship is teaching Panagot about the thoroughbred as flesh and blood, not gambling tool.
"Just watching Graham in the mornings, you learn so much,'' he said. "His attention to detail is amazing. I'm at the barn every day. I'm not doing this from my coffee table. But looking back, it's amazing what I didn't know about horses when I started. It's like I knew nothing.''
Knowing enough to seek an opportunity was what mattered most.
"This job is just something that evolved,'' Motion said, "and John has been tremendously helpful to me.''