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Elusive prize no obsession
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Bill Mott is going to win the Kentucky Derby. Maybe not this year, and maybe not next. But someday it will happen, and when it does the racing world will breathe a sigh of great relief.
But hey. Richard Burton never won an Oscar. Sam Snead never won the Open. Ernie Banks never wore a World Series ring. Mott has plenty of company among his peers, too, still on the outside looking in. The same lament could be sung for Allen Jerkens, Ron McAnally, Richard Mandella, Bobby Frankel, Jonathan Sheppard, and Shug McGaughey, all of them very active and right there alongside Mott in the Thoroughbred racing Hall of Fame.
Mott, however, is the all-time leading trainer in the history of Churchill Downs, which is where you have to be to win the Derby. With 583 winners going into the current meet, you would think that somewhere along the way he would have accidentally won the dang thing, unless it just comes up too soon in that first condition book.
"I've never pursued the Derby as a goal," Mott said this week in his stable office between sets. "I've had to wait for owners to come to me, because I'm not a great salesman anyway. I've never picked up the phone and said, 'Let's go pick out a Derby horse.' "
This puts him in a rare minority among modern trainers, who can no longer sit back and wait for a classic horse to show up. If they want one, they'd better get hustling.
"I'm going to get better at it," Mott promised, and smiled. "I've actually had some horses who were certainly bred for the Derby. But as individuals they weren't up to the task. I just don't believe I've ever had the right horse."
Although historians may be scratching their heads, it's hard for the rest of us to feel sorry for Mott. After all, he has trained five champions, including two-time Horse of the Year Cigar, who put Mott in the spotlight with a 16-race winning streak that covered part of three campaigns in the mid-1990s.
Over the past decade, Mott has steadily added to his impressive stats without training a media darling. He made headlines last summer at Saratoga when, in an uncharacteristic flurry of success with 2-year-olds, Mott seized the training title from Todd Pletcher and won the Hopeful Stakes for good measure.
But let's face it. Neither Mott nor his horses have exactly broken a sweat trying to win the Derby. The best of the bunch was probably Taylor's Special, a top-class sprinter-miler who had the bad luck to win the Blue Grass Stakes back in 1984, when people still paid attention to the results of that race. In the Derby, Taylor's Special was fourth choice and finished 13th.
Favorite Trick, the reigning Horse of the Year, was eighth in 1998 in his third start for Mott (Pat Byrne trained him as an unbeaten 2-year-old). At no point in his career did he look like a mile-and-a-quarter horse, which Mott knew anyway, and later the colt took the Jim Dandy. A badly outclassed Rock and Roll ran for Mott in the same Derby, as a courtesy to co-owners Madeleine Paulson and Jenny Craig, and beat one horse. Since then, the only Mott Derby sighting has been with George Steinbrenner's Blue Burner, who was an anonymous 11th in 2002.
Clearly, these are not the stats of a man serious about winning the race, at least not in comparison with someone like Todd Pletcher, who will be running his 20th and 21st horses on Saturday in search of his first Derby prize. What, in fact, is Mott's problem? Doesn't he know that no one outside the sport will take him seriously until he joins David Cross, Cam Gambolati, Juan Arias, and Clyde Van Dusen as Derby winning trainers? Even Charlie Whittingham managed to crack the Derby code, although he was 73 when it finally happened.
"Considering that, I don't really feel any pressure to win it," said Mott, who is 54. "I suppose if I had the favorite, things would be different."
Richard Dutrow has that role this time around with Big Brown, the unbeaten winner of the Florida Derby. Dutrow has been rubbing a few feathers the wrong way with his cocksure comments, something the buttoned-down Mott tends to avoid (he is, after all, from South Dakota). Still, it has been great theater.
"I like Richie Dutrow," Mott said. "He's a good trainer, and I think he's having a good time. Let him crow a little bit. So what? It adds some color. Everybody else is giving these generic answers: 'Well, we've got a shot. He's doin' good.' "
Mott will be challenging Big Brown with WinStar Farm's Court Vision, third in the Wood Memorial last time out, and Zayat Stable's Z Humor, third in the Illinois Derby.
"Court Vision's got the most perfect attitude," Mott said. "He just doesn't make any mistakes. He's very gutsy - you can put him anywhere. He wants to run and he tries to get himself to the wire. I'm not going to say he's the most talented horse I've ever trained, but he's got what it takes, like the little red engine that keeps thinking, 'I can do it. I can do it.' I've learned over the years that horses with such a disposition will take you a long way.
"Z Humor is a strong, bullish sort of a horse with a beautiful way of going," Mott went on. "He could get rattled, though. He lost his race at Tampa" - the Sam Davis - "when he washed out in the paddock. But we shipped in and ran, so we didn't get a chance to school him. That was unfair to him. Of course, you can't really prepare them for what they're going to see at the Derby. So if he gets a little shook up, it won't be a surprise."
In an interesting move, with the Derby at stake, Mott is taking blinkers off Z Humor and putting them on Court Vision.
"Well, you see, we only have the one set of blinkers," Mott deadpanned.
But seriously, folks . . .
"We learned something about Court Vision the other day, putting blinkers on him, when he worked a half in 46 and 1," Mott said. "We gave him a lead horse and he just went after him. He had a little more run in the tank than we gave him credit for."
Enough to give Mott his first taste of Derby glory?
"They're doing good," Mott replied. "We've got a shot."