Jersey-bred Irish War Cry a Kentucky Derby contender

Wood Memorial Horse Racing
Irish War Cry, ridden by Rajiv Maragh, wins the Wood Memorial .

FAIR HILL, Md. - The 86-year-old owner, daughter of Monmouth Park's founder Amory Haskell, drove and later built race cars in Europe with her Argentine husband. The English-born trainer, one of America's best whose stable is just across the Pennsylvania border in Maryland, is six years from his first Kentucky Derby win and live for his second. The Jamaican jockey returned a few months after a broken arm in 2014 and then missed 16 months following 2015 back and rib fractures, getting back just a few months before first riding a horse with a chance to give him his first Derby win.

That is the team behind Irish War Cry, a colt bred in New Jersey, the Double A of horse racing on a good day. So how did it happen that this horse has won the key 2017 Derby prep, the Feb. 4 Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park and the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct in such dominating fashion that he will be one of the favorites for Saturday's Derby? How exactly is this son of undistinguished mare Irish Sovereign so good that a Jersey-bred has a real chance to win the Derby?

Well, it began with owner Isabelle Haskell de Tomaso's decision to breed her mare to two-time Horse of the Year Curlin. The resulting foal became Irish War Cry.

"I'm not sure how (the owner) came to me,'' trainer Graham Motion said April 20 while sitting at a picnic table just outside his stable office at the Fair Hill Training Center. "I'm friends with one of her nieces who actually lives in the area here. It's possible that's the connection. I guess I've trained for her for five or six years. Neat lady.''

With a fascinating backstory, centered on speed.

Isabelle rode horses on her family's Woodland Farm in Middletown, N.J. as a child. Her mother Annette bred and owned Opera Hat who finished third in the 1938 Wood Memorial.

Isabelle's father, a General Motors executive, gave her money to buy a Chevrolet on her 21st birthday. Already enthralled by sports cars, she went to Philadelphia instead to buy an MG-TD.

She went to work for a small company that specialized in the study and use of atomic batteries. The company's owners were also race car people and steered her toward amateur racing. She eventually worked her way to Europe where she purchased a Maserati and got her professional license.

She met her husband, Alejandro de Tomaso while buying a Maserati engine at the factory in Italy. They raced in Europe, South America and the United States through the 1950s, winning the 1958 Index of Performance together at Sebring in Florida.

After she ended her driving career, Isabelle and Alejandro founded a car company before she turned back to the race horses, buying horses in England, including a mare that traces right to Irish War Cry.

The lineage is nice, but the decision to breed to Curlin is the reason Irish War Cry is a Derby contender.

"It's certainly by far the best horse she's bred to,'' Motion said.

When Irish War Cry made his debut last November at Laurel Park, Motion, who won the Derby in 2011 with Animal Kingdom, was not thinking 2017 Derby even a little bit.

"We liked him,'' Motion said. "My guys will tell me they thought more of him than I had noticed, but I had no idea. Visually, I thought it was an incredibly impressive race. I thought it was as impressive as any (first-time) starter I've ever had. Pretty eye-catching.''

Near the back early, Irish War Cry circled the field and won by 41/2 lengths. Then, he showed a real will to win on New Year's Eve at Laurel when he refused to be passed in the stretch of a minor stakes race.

That was enough to send Irish War Cry south to Florida where he crushed the horses that would eventually win the Fountain of Youth and Arkansas Derby.

"I was pretty shocked,'' Motion said. "Not that I didn't like him, but I was shocked with the ease that he did it and the way that he did it. It's not like one of my horses to go to the lead in a 3-year-old Derby prep, never look back, let's be real.''

Motion, who has won major races all over the country, has never really been a player in the Derby preps. Even Animal Kingdom was very late to the party before winning the Derby in a big upset.

Motion was also a bit shocked when Irish War Cry faded quickly in the Fountain of Youth, eventually losing by 213/4 lengths, the only loss of his career.

"It was just a disaster,'' Motion said. "I have theories.''

The trainer hopes it was just an uncomfortable drying-out track and Irish War Cry went too fast too soon. So he got the horse back to Fair Hill and got him ready for the Wood Memorial.

Irish War Cry absolutely crushed that field, with Rajiv Maragh riding for the first time. On to the Derby, with a horse that has as good a chance as any.

Winning it once, Motion, said "takes some of the pressure off. I don't think you're quite so obsessive.''

But he would like to re-create the feeling of "walking down from the box to the winner's circle was something else,'' this time with a Jersey-bred owned by a former race car driver and ridden by a jockey who overcame devastating injuries and has had great success with the trainer.

"You hate to get too emotional about it, but it's hard not to,'' Motion said of Maragh. "He's certainly a friend of ours. We watched him go through all that and it was very difficult.''

Each summer, Isabelle and her sister Hope Haskell Jones present the trophy to the winner of the Haskell Invitational, Monmouth's signature race, a race named for her father.

The 50th Haskell will be run July 30. The sisters, who live in West Palm Beach, may be presenting that trophy to themselves. First, however, there is the matter of that Kentucky Derby trophy.

jerardd@phillynews.com

@DickJerardi