Racing: Greatness the motivator as Bell challenges might of big battalions

Tomorrow's Derby brings a rare opportunity for one of racing's smaller stables to scoop the most famous prize of all
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The Independent Online

The Derby, like football's Premiership, is a contest open to only a few houses. Recent history tells us that outside the turf leviathans of Ballydoyle and Godolphin, and with the exception of Sir Michael Stoute's operation, everyone else might as well go and play on the fairground horses on Epsom Downs. Tomorrow's race, though, is pleasingly different.

The Derby, like football's Premiership, is a contest open to only a few houses. Recent history tells us that outside the turf leviathans of Ballydoyle and Godolphin, and with the exception of Sir Michael Stoute's operation, everyone else might as well go and play on the fairground horses on Epsom Downs. Tomorrow's race, though, is pleasingly different.

The 226th Derby possesses as its favourite a mighty animal called Motivator, who is trained, dutifully but without fanfare, at Newmarket by Michael Bell. Motivator is that most bewitching of animals, an unbeaten colt with afterburn speed, a colt for which the ceiling has not yet been put in place. When purists close their eyes and imagine a horse coming out of the mists, this is what they see.

Motivator is the great chance for Michael Leopold Wentworth Bell, but then the 44-year-old comes from a family not known for spurning their opportunities. Great uncle Leopold himself made his fortune when he backed an American invention he thought could take off. The product was called Tampax.

Bell hopes the commodity he has nurtured may one day earn such global recognition. "Motivator is without doubt the best horse we've ever had and, most probably, the best horse we'll ever have," says. "I cannot foresee the situation when we'll have the favourite for the Derby again.

"He's a very exciting colt, at this stage an unbeaten Group One winner who has been very impressive in all his races. So why shouldn't we be positive?"

Michael Bell is reclining in the sprawling gardens of his Fitzroy House stable as he tells you all this, with well maintained shrubs and borders surrounding the all-weather tennis court. Birdsong is in the air. It is a tranquil world, a world apart from the blood, mucus and sweat which will fly around Tattenham Corner.

Yet there is one connection. Above the clipped hedges and tidy ivy, butterflies flutter, much as they will within Bell himself tomorrow afternoon. "I'm not a regular smoker, but I will be puffing away on the day," he says. "It's going to be a test of everyone's nerves. Horse, jockey, trainer and all the team.

"There is a lot of pressure, but it's the sort of pressure you dream of having. There are trainers under a lot more pressure than me, people with big mortgages, empty boxes, bad payers and slow horses. Our pressure is different.

"It's important to get your priorities right. I've got to be as professional as possible in my approach to a huge race for us all, but equally you can recognise there are more important things going on around us. At the end of the day it is only a horse race, a huge horse race admittedly, perhaps a career-changing horse race, but only a horse race. Of course, we're excited. Of course, we're pumped up. But we won't cry if he is beaten.

"We're extremely fortunate to have this horse. It's an unusual circumstance and we're trying to enjoy it if we can. But I'd probably be able to enjoy the Derby far more if I was sitting at home relaxed, watching it [on television] as I usually am. The day will be stressful, but I'm lucky to be suffering that level of stress."

Bell's first recollection of the Derby is the 1969 running, when another little-vaunted trainer Arthur Budgett saw his Blakeney creep through on the inside to deny Shoemaker. Master Bell listened to that one on the radio at Heatherdown prep school in Ascot. Twenty years later Bell himself would be a trainer, but his Derby options have been limited. Just two Derby runners have emerged from Fitzroy House, more notably Housemaster, who was fourth to Oath in 1999. "I know it's difficult to compare generations," Bell says, "but Motivator would be some way ahead of Housemaster."

The subject of this acclaim is standing quietly in his corner box up in the top yard, a painter's blob of white between his eyes. Motivator may be a beast outdoors, but in his dwelling he is as fearsome as a pensioner with a pot of tea. "He's extremely placid in his stable," Bell says. "We had five of his owners in the box the other day with the door open and he lay down to go to sleep. I've never seen a thoroughbred do that."

Motivator is very much a home boy. He was foaled at Deerfield Farm at Dullingham, just three miles from the home he has known since he was a yearling. "He was born and bred in Newmarket and went to Newmarket sales as a yearling," Bell says. "He came here, across the road from Tattersalls [Sales], and ran first time at the bottom of town at the July course. So he's very inexperienced mentally."

As a consequence of this smalltown background it was determined that Motivator should have some prior experience of Epsom without actually racing. "We went into the saddling boxes, walked round the paddock and heard the Tannoy," Bell says. "He cantered to the mile and a quarter start and did a swinging canter back, maybe more than a swinger, a three-quarters speed.

"It was done for familiarity and a bit of mental experience. It cannot have done him any harm because Epsom is a big ordeal. The preliminaries are unique. The paddock is the pre-parade ring and they walk around next to the road, next to those tents and underneath the stands with that loud broadcast system blaring away. It will be a test, a strain, for him."

Here, in Newmarket's Black Bear Lane, the high walls know what it is like to house a Derby winner. This is the yard where Bahram (1935), Mahmoud (1936) and Tulyar (1952) won the Blue Riband for the Aga Khan and was also once the home of Sceptre, one of the great horses of the 20th century. The filly was bought for 10,000gns, the proceeds of a massive punt in the 1912 Cesarewitch, by Robert Standish Sievier, a rakish gambler and adventurer, reputedly born in the back of a London hansom cab. In spite of, rather than because of, Sievier's ministrations, Sceptre managed to win both Guineas, the Oaks and St Leger.

Michael Bell is different flesh altogether, a pleasant man who understands racing's place in the firmament. But he too can harbour hopes that he has another horse of the century.

"The Holy Grail is now within touching distance," Bell says. "I hope we're on a long road. In a perfect world we'd go on to the Irish Derby, Irish Champion Stakes and the Arc.

"He hasn't seen another horse in the last two furlongs of his races. He's travelled strongly on the bridle through all his races and then quickened up. He's had one backhander in his life. We don't know how good he is yet." Tomorrow, at 4.20, we find out.

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