06/12/2014 2:40PM

Hovdey: This time, Mott hopes he's on steady ground


You can’t say they didn’t try. California sent its two best 3-year-olds, its best middle-distance 4-year-old, its best older filly, and its most accomplished 3-year-old filly to Belmont Park for that big pile of money offered last Saturday, and – except for Bayern’s romp in the Woody Stephens – they came away with legs bleeding and egos bruised.

Twenty million TV viewers watched California Chrome come up 1 3/4 lengths short in the Belmont to put a stake in the heart of a fairy-tale Triple Crown, and if those same 20 million were tuned in to the first part of the NBC telecast, they saw Goldencents, the winner last year of the Santa Anita Derby and Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, run his guts out to be second to Palace Malice in the Metropolitan Handicap.

Those losses followed the frustrations of two-time champ Beholder, who was a game fourth in the Ogden Phipps, and Santa Anita Oaks winner Fashion Plate, who finished a quiet ninth in the Acorn Stakes.

The beauty of a vast racing nation like the USofA is the challenge of mixing and matching regional stars under a variety of conditions. Beholder and California Chrome went home bloody but unashamed, while the others will be looking for opportunities down the road. It’s a long year.

:: Click here to purchase a copy of “Long Rein: Tales from the World of Horse Racing,” a collection of columns and features by Jay Hovdey

On Saturday, the shoe will be on the other hoof. Santa Anita’s program, topped by the $400,000 Shoemaker Mile and the $300,000 Vanity Stakes, is being chased by the three New York trainers who swept up most of the money last weekend at Belmont, including Christophe Clement, who won the big one with Tonalist.

Clement has the reliable 5-year-old Summer Front in town for the Shoemaker, a race that would seem to be a perfect fit for his late-running style. On paper, Summer Front may not be quite as fast as the favored locals – Winning Prize and Obviously – but if he runs to his near miss in the Citation Handicap at Hollywood Park last fall, he should be in the mix at the end.

Todd Pletcher, who won the Metropolitan and lost photo finishes in the Belmont and the Phipps, put Jack Milton on the plane with Summer Front for the Shoemaker, just in case he’s got another good one in him like the Poker Stakes at Belmont on Memorial Day. Studio exec Gary Barber, whose California-based stable is growing national muscle, owns Jack Milton.

Then there is Bill Mott, who saddled Close Hatches to win a thriller over Princess of Sylmar in the Phipps. Mott will try to add the Vanity on Saturday with Grace Hall, a daughter of Empire Maker who won Oaks events in Delaware, Indiana, and Florida last year while trained by Tony Dutrow. The last time Mott handled a talented daughter of Empire Maker, Royal Delta was a champion for three seasons running.

It is only right that Mott has something in the Vanity, even now that it takes place at Santa Anita. He’s been trying to get even with the race for years. Sure, he won it in 1998 with Allen Paulson’s Escena, an outstanding mare who gave the game four solid seasons. But Mott needs at least one more score to erase the taste of that first experience.

Mott was just shy of his 31st birthday when he brought Heatherten to Hollywood Park for the Vanity in July 1984. The field was deep with mares like Princess Rooney, Adored, and Weekend Surprise, but Heatherten was on a roll of seven straight wins that made her 2-1 in the betting.

She finished last, never running a jump and mystifying both Mott and his jockey, Sam Maple. The Vanity ended up being the only dark mark for Heatherten in a season that included wins in the Apple Blossom, the Ruffian, the Hempstead, and the Ladies.

“I remember it extremely well,” Mott said this week. “We were shipping from Kentucky with a mixed load of broodmares and yearlings. But at the last minute, some kind of virus hit in Kentucky, and they put a quarantine on all the breeding stock.”

Heatherten ended up the only horse on the plane, which cost owner John Franks about $30,000. Mott insisted it was worth the risk, since he had every expectation that Heatherten could win the $150,000 prize.

“When Princess Rooney crossed the wire in first, we were just turning for home,” Mott said. “I still don’t know why she ran as bad as she did. I put off calling Mr. Franks as long as I could, then figured I should get it over with.”

Mott reported that Heatherten came back okay and began to float a couple possible reasons for her poor race. Franks cut him short.

“Billy,” he said, “I’m a geologist. I know there’s a lot of earthquake activity out in California. Heatherten is a very sensitive filly. I just think she could sense that and didn’t have any confidence in running.”

Mott didn’t hesitate for a second.

“I said, ‘You know what, Mr. Franks? I never thought about that, but you’re exactly right,’ ” Mott said. “I thought I might get fired, and here the owner makes the excuse up for me. I never had it so good.”

Grace Hall comes into the Vanity off a close second in the May 11 Ruffian Stakes, her first race for Mott.

“I like her a lot,” Mott said. “Let’s just hope we don’t need the earthquake excuse.”