03/31/2011 2:43PM

At Gulfstream, Mott barn ready to fire its big guns

Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Bill Mott (left) watched his top Kentucky Derby contender, To Honor and Serve, finish a disappointing third in his 2011 debut in the Fountain of Youth on Feb. 26. To Honor and Serve returns Sunday in the Florida Derby.

INDIANTOWN, Fla. − It has been this kind of winter for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott: He has won more races at Tampa Bay Downs than at Gulfstream Park. He is 1 for 23 in stakes races in 2011, and the one winner − Changing Skies − was recently retired.

"January is always slow, but we kind of had a slow February and March, too," said Mott, who through Wednesday had won 15 races from 144 starters this year.

Mott is 7 for 91 at Gulfstream Park, where he has won or shared nine trainer's titles. In the last decade, his lowest win total here has been 16.

If he hadn't been training for so long, perhaps Mott, 57, would be frustrated. But on a gorgeous spring morning at the Payson Park training center, located some 90 miles northwest of Gulfstream Park, Mott was in good spirits as he repeatedly drove from the barn to the track in his 45-year-old red Chevrolet pick-up truck − a Valentine's Day gift many years ago from his wife, Tina.

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"I guess after doing it for nearly 40 years you realize, 'I've been through it before, and it'll turn around, and things will go well,' " said Mott, who ranks fourth all-time in purse earnings with $189 million and ninth all-time in wins with 4,067.

This weekend would be a great time for the turnaround to commence. Mott will be sending out major players in three of Gulfstream's six graded stakes, including To Honor and Serve in Sunday's $1 million Florida Derby; defending Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic winner Unrivaled Belle in Saturday's $150,000 Rampart; and last year's Belmont Stakes winner, Drosselmeyer, Sunday in the $100,000 Skip Away.

The focus will be on To Honor and Serve, who, after ending his 2-year-old campaign with victories in the Nashua and Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct, finished a flat third in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth to begin his 3-year-old campaign.

Mott said he wasn't surprised To Honor and Serve lost, but thought he would have finished closer than the 6 3/4 lengths he was beaten by Soldat, whom he will meet again Sunday.

"I guess it's more of an indication how badly he needed the race," Mott said.

Mott said that, following the Remsen, To Honor and Serve spent a week at Payson Park before shipping to owner Charlotte Weber's Live Oak Stud in Ocala, Fla., for about a month. He had only started jogging on the farm by the time he returned to Mott at Payson the first weekend of January. To Honor and Serve worked six times before the Fountain of Youth.

"We didn't plan on the Fountain of Youth being his primary goal," Mott said. "This race should give us a better indication where we're at."

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Mott has won 369 graded stakes races in his Hall of Fame career due in large part to his ability to point a horse for a specific race. He is winless with seven runners in five Kentucky Derbies, but he said he doesn't believe that is due to an inability to have a 3-year-old prepared and at his peak on the first Saturday in May.

"I've done it before," said Mott, whose best Derby finish was Favorite Trick's eighth in 1998. "Frankly, we've had some horses that we brought into the race very well. They didn't prove out to be good enough.

"A lot of our horses have run their best races on the big days, pointing them to those days," Mott said. "This is no different. A little different age group, a little different time of year, but there's some that would question whether I push hard enough."

To Honor and Serve, a tall, rangy, gorgeous specimen by 2006 Preakness winner Bernardini, looks to be the best Derby prospect Mott has had. To Honor and Serve has displayed good tactical speed while having the pedigree to suggest he can get 1 1/4 miles.

"I firmly believe he's a very nice horse. I don't have many doubts about that," Mott said. "Timing becomes the issue. Florida Derby, Kentucky Derby, it's all coming up in a hurry. It's just a matter of whether you can get them somewhere near their best by those days."

Having built what he feels is a solid foundation under To Honor and Serve as a 2-year-old, Mott opted for the two-prep approach leading to the Kentucky Derby. It's an approach that has worked for three of the last four Derby winners, and one Mott hopes will enable him to have a horse to run all year long.

"I'd like to do it and still have a horse left for the Travers," Mott said.

When Unrivaled Belle won the Ladies' Classic on Nov. 5 at Churchill Downs, it was Mott's first victory in the Breeders' Cup since 1998. With the Breeders' Cup returning to Churchill this year, Unrivaled Belle was kept in training to make another run at the Ladies' Classic, and her campaign begins with Saturday's Rampart, a race she won last year.

The biggest difference between this year and last is that Unrivaled Belle won't have the benefit of a prep entering the Rampart, run at 1 1/8 miles.

"I'm thinking a mile and a sixteenth might be her best distance," Mott said. "This race at a mile-and-an-eighth might be stretching her a little bit. I think when she's totally tight, the Breeders' Cup is fine for her."

Mott won his first Triple Crown race last year, when Drosselmeyer pulled off a mild upset in the Belmont Stakes. Drosselmeyer missed the remainder of his 3-year-old season because of ankle issues. He finished fourth in his return in the Challenger Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs on March 5.

Mott said he was hoping to use the Challenger as a prep for the Dubai World Cup, but a virus suffered shortly after the Challenger forced that trip to be canceled. Mott and WinStar Farm, which owns Drosselmeyer, opted for Sunday's Skip Away over the Oaklawn Park Handicap, seeking an easier spot.

"I think that's wise," Mott said. "They've got to show you they're back in form before you go take on the big guys."

Though Mott's year has gotten off to a rough start, it appears he has plenty of ammunition to get back to his winning ways.

In addition to the trio of horses who are running this weekend, Mott has several other runners he has yet to unveil this year. Courageous Cat, the Breeders' Cup Mile runner-up from 2009, is back in training after suffering an entrapped epiglottis when third in the Shadwell Turf Mile last October.

As the North American trainer for the powerful Juddmonte Farm, Mott gets his hands on some wonderful pedigrees. He has Deluxe, a 3-year-old colt by Storm Cat out of the dam Hasili, making him a brother to five Grade 1 winners. Raison d'Etat is a 3-year-old by A.P. Indy out of the Grade 1 winner Sightseek. Mott also is training a half-sister to Sightseek.

Moryba ran a terrific race when third, beaten a head, in the Grade 2 Mervin Muniz Jr. at Fair Grounds last weekend. Aviate, third in the Honey Fox, is pointing to the Jenny Wiley at Keeneland on April 16.

"I still think there's some good things on the horizon," Mott said. "We still have possibilities."