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Belmont Stakes: Can Graham Motion work magic with Irish War Cry?

Irish War Cry, one of the contenders in

Irish War Cry, one of the contenders in the 149th running of the Belmont Stakes, gets in his morning workout at Belmont Park racetrack in Elmont on Thursday, June 8, 2017. Photo Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Skepticism is in the mental tool box of all sharp handicappers, who usually are wary of trainers who go against the grain. When sizing up one of Graham Motion’s horses, making the leap of faith often pays off.

The transplanted Englishman’s first big splash came in the 2004 Breeders’ Cup Turf, when he shocked heavily favored Kitten’s Joy with 27-1 shot Better Talk Now. Motion stole the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf with 46-1 Shared Account. In the 2011 Kentucky Derby, few believed Animal Kingdom could contend in his dirt debut. He cruised at odds of 20-1. Two years later, Motion sent him to the Middle East to win the world’s richest race, the Dubai World Cup.

Amityville native Carolann McGee, one of Motion’s assistant trainers, has been with him for five years. She helped to nurse Main Sequence back to health in 2014, before he won four consecutive Grade I grass races, including the Breeders’ Cup Turf. Before Motion got him, Main Sequence lost 10 in a row in Europe.

The secret of Motion’s success?

“Graham listens to his horses and what they’re telling him,” McGee told Newsday a few years ago. “He has great instincts.”

So when Motion had a change of heart last week and decided to bring Kentucky Derby flop Irish War Cry to Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, I paid attention. I’ve cashed on many of Motion’s horses, including Animal Kingdom.

After Irish War Cry stopped suddenly at the top of the Churchill Downs stretch and backpedaled to 10th, Motion was bummed out.

“Right after the Derby I didn’t want to think about another Triple Crown race,” he said. “But I’ve been seeing how well he’s doing. And after seeing the results of the Preakness — he’s run well against those horses — it made me think more about [the Belmont].

“I think sometimes we overthink these things a little bit. It’s a classic, it only comes once in a lifetime, and I think he deserves the chance.”

Me, too, but unfortunately, even if Irish War Cry wins, the payoff won’t be much. When a foot abscess forced out Classic Empire on Wednesday, Irish War Cry by default became the 7-2 morning-line favorite. With lameness threatening the participation of 4-1 second favorite Epicharis, more people will jump on Irish War Cry.

He has tactical speed and should be in good position under Rajiv Maragh. Irish War Cry’s sire, two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, was a close second in the 2007 Belmont.

“The Curlin would say the [1½-mile] distance wouldn’t be a problem, but the dam’s side is a little suspect,” Motion said. “Any of us are going purely on speculation or gut instinct on whether a horse can handle it or not.

“I don’t think anyone really knows.”

I’m not pretending I do, but I have to make a pick. I’ll take Irish War Cry on top, followed by Patch (excellent distance pedigree) in second, with J Boys Echo third and Lookin At Lee fourth.

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