03/31/2011 3:55PM

Kentucky Derby win not the be-all and end-all

Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Bill Mott is not alone among Hall of Famers without a Kentucky Derby win.

There are a lot of things Bill Mott can do if you ask him to. He can strap on his blacksmith leathers and trim a tender hoof. He can lace up the rollerblades and go fetch the mail. And if confronted by a thirsty pilgrim from some distant land, like California, he will gladly buy him an ice cold beer.

What Bill Mott refuses to do, however, is feel sorry for himself for being one of America’s most famous Thoroughbred trainers who, for all his accomplishments, has so far failed to win the Kentucky Derby, America’s most famous race. The disconnect looms every spring, highlighting Mott’s fellowship in a select band of brothers, and even the fact that he has a colt in the mix this year is quite beside the point.

If To Honor and Serve emerges from Sunday’s $1 million Florida Derby looking like a Kentucky Derby threat, the media will have a field day. They will “rediscover” Mott with rapt enthusiasm, while summoning the names of Ernie Banks, Sam Snead, and other sporting icons who did everything but win the most important prize offered by their respective games. Uncle Mo-Uncle Schmo – if To Honor and Serve is impressive at Gulfstream, it will be Mott’s Derby to lose.

The tale would be the same, however, if in place of Mott with a leading contender it was Ron McAnally or Richard Mandella or Allen Jerkens or Shug McGaughey. Among all active trainers who have a Hall of Fame blazer hanging in the closet back home, it’s this bunch who harbor long-lasting sentimental support, year after year, to finally add a Kentucky Derby to their long list of achievements.

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It is not enough that Mott trained Cigar. Or that Mandella once won four Breeders’ Cup races in a single afternoon. Or that Shug McGaughey has trained three Hall of Fame horses, including the unbeaten Personal Ensign. Or that Ron McAnally will be forever tied to the heroics of John Henry and Bayakoa. Or that Allen Jerkens has spent the last 60 years crafting miracles with stakes horses on the New York stage. It should be, but for some reason it’s not.

After he won the 1986 Kentucky Derby with Ferdinand, Charlie Whittingham liked to say that no one ever was particularly impressed with the fact he was a Thoroughbred trainer until he could identify himself as a Thoroughbred trainer who had won the Derby. It was a good line, and it got the right amount of laughs, but there was one problem: Charlie Whittingham never worried about impressing anyone, at at the age of 72, which he was at the time, he wasn’t about to start.

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Mott, Jerkens, McAnally, McGaughey, and Mandella share, at least in spirit, the Whittingham DNA. They balk at imposing artificial will upon their horses. They are deeply suspicious when someone tells them they have to win a certain race, on a certain day, or all is lost. They don’t just listen to their young horses – they understand what their young horses are trying to say. And most of them are saying, “No, I would prefer not to run a mile and a quarter on the first Saturday in May, but I will if you want me to.”

It is that willingness of the young Thoroughbred that makes some trainers so gunshy about plunging headlong into a hostile climate like the Derby. They know the price a young horse pays, especially when he is at least a year from full physical maturity, which is why guys like Mandella and Mott have those long lists of extraordinary older horses on their r é sum é s.

It cannot be said that those five trainers have not won the Kentucky Derby because they do not try. True enough, the stats show Mott, McAnally, Mandella, Jerkens, and McGaughey having run a combined 32 horses in the race – compared to 28 for Todd Pletcher, 24 for Nick Zito, 20 for Bob Baffert, and 43 for Wayne Lukas alone.

But a relative lack of opportunity offers no explanation. Derby winner Barclay Tagg has had five starters. Derby winner John Shirreffs has had three starters. Derby winners John Servis, Chip Woolley, and Cam Gambolati each had exactly one Derby starter.

The only answer comes in taking a deep breath and accepting the honest truth: Great trainers win the Kentucky Derby, but it does not take a great trainer to win the Kentucky Derby.

Allen Jerkens has taken exactly three colts to the Derby. Round Stake was 11th in 1975, Sensitive Prince was sixth to Affirmed and Alydar in 1978, and Devil His Due finished 12th in 1992.

“I thought Devil His Due would be in the money, but he didn’t run at all for some reason,” Jerkens said Thursday afternoon from his Gulfstream barn. “Of course, he didn’t run as a 2-year-old, and I don’t think anybody has won without running at 2.”

He’s right, if you go back only to the late 1800's, but if anyone could have . . .

“Sensitive Prince was as good a colt as I’ve had,” Jerkens went on. “He just came along with the two best horses we’ve had in a while. But he went head-and-head with a fast horse that wasn’t going anywhere that day. A mile and an eighth was about as far as he wanted to go, but he was always a better horse than Believe It, who finished third that day.”

Jerkens was asked, in his heart of hearts, why he thought a Derby has never come his way.

“I’m just stupid, that’s all,” Jerkens confessed. “Some of us are smart – Ben Jones was smart, Baffert’s smart, Lukas is smart – the rest of us are stupid. There’s no use kidding yourself about it. It just avoids some people.

“All you can do is play the cards your dealt,” Jerkens added. “I would like to win the Derby. I’m not saying I wouldn’t. But I’d just as soon win the Travers or the Belmont as any race in the world.”