04/30/2009 12:00AM

Mott moves forward after breakup

Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Bill Mott (right) says Hold Me Back "gets the trip no problem. Running style, temperament, I think he gets the mile and a quarter okay."

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - In the summer of 2007, there was no hotter team than trainer Bill Mott and owner Ahmed Zayat. In the six-week Saratoga meet that year, Mott won 12 races for Zayat Stables, seven of them with 2-year-olds.

But success in this game can be fleeting. And by the end of 2008, Mott and Zayat had, save a horse or two, split up. Part of it had to do with results - Mott went 2 for 26 for Zayat at Saratoga in 2008. Part of it had to do with Mott's desire to downsize his stable from 150 horses, a third of which were owned by Zayat.

"I felt I needed to cut my numbers back a little and they accommodated me," Mott deadpanned earlier this week on the Churchill Downs backside.

In a perfect world, Mott would have retained 10 horses or so for Zayat. In racing's imperfect world, Mott has just one horse for Zayat - Miro, a 3-year-old who won a maiden race on April 4 at Keeneland and who finished sixth in a Churchill allowance race Wednesday.

"It wasn't a case where I necessarily wanted to give them up completely," said the 55-year-old Mott, who noted that he chose to stay with long-time clients. "Instead of having 50, I'd have rather had 10."

Among the horses Mott would have liked to have kept for Zayat was Pioneerof the Nile, who went 1 for 4 for Mott at 2, but who, under the tutelage of trainer Bob Baffert, has won four consecutive graded stakes to emerge as a leading contender for Saturday's 135th Kentucky Derby. Mott will attempt to beat Pioneerof the Nile and 18 others in the Derby with Hold Me Back, an intriguing longshot he trains for WinStar Farm.

Sobhy Sonbol, who serves as the racing manager for Zayat, said the decision not to leave more horses with Mott was because Mott winters at Payson Park, a training center 50 miles north of Gulfstream.

"I had a number of injuries come out of there the previous winter; I did not want to go to Payson Park," Sonbol said. "It was unfair for me to force [Mott] to go somewhere else; I did not want to put him under that pressure."

"I have absolutely no animosity towards them," Mott said. "I don't wish anybody any bad luck, and I love Pioneerof the Nile. I think he's a really nice horse. I told them that before I ever ran him, so it's not surprising to me how well he's done. I don't wish him any bad luck but I will try to beat him on Saturday."

Hold Me Back is a good-looking bay son of Giant's Causeway who has won 3 of 5 starts, including the Grade 2 Lane's End at Turfway Park. Lil E. Tee, in 1992, was the last winner of the Lane's End - then called the Jim Beam - to capture the Derby.

The question most handicappers will have is whether Hold Me Back can handle dirt. In his only race on dirt, he finished a well-beaten fifth to Old Fashioned in the Grade 2 Remsen at Aqueduct with no apparent excuse.

"I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, particularly I suppose since his 2-year-old speed figures were all very similar," Mott said. "Then five months later he made a big move forward."

Mott was planning to run Hold Me Back on dirt in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park at the end of February. But at the beginning of that month, Hold Me Back got sick and lost a little training time. Hold Me Back didn't run until March 21, when he made an explosive five-wide move in the Lane's End and rolled to a 1 3/4-length victory. He came back three weeks later in the Blue Grass, where he finished second to General Quarters.

"It wasn't maybe his best race, but I thought it was a very good effort," Mott said of the Blue Grass. "Any horse that runs as well as he did off the shelf in the Lane's End is subject to regress a little bit."

Though Mott is the all-time leader in wins and stakes wins at Churchill Downs, the Derby has eluded him from six starters. Mott ran his first horse in the Derby 25 years ago when Taylor's Special finished 13th. Last year, Mott runners Court Vision and Z Humor finished 13th and 14th, respectively.

"Up until this year I thought my best chance was probably Court Vision last year, and of course he turned out to be much better on the grass," Mott said. "He was really the only horse that I'd ever run that had a license to get a mile and a quarter. The rest of them were milers."

Mott believes Hold Me Back will relish the 1 1/4 miles of the Derby.

"I think he gets the trip no problem," Mott said. "Running style, temperament, I think he gets the mile and a quarter okay."

Mott also believes Hold Me Back prefers a firm dirt course. With all the rain forecast for Derby Week, track maintenance crews figure to pack the track down in an attempt to squeeze the water out of it. Both Mott and his jockey, Kent Desormeaux, believe that will benefit Hold Me Back.

"If I see a good, firm racetrack I think that's going to be key with him," Mott said. "He doesn't like a real deep racetrack."

"I'm encouraged by the weather," said Desormeaux, who seeks to become the first jockey since Eddie Delahoussaye in 1982-83 to win back-to-back Derbies. "With a supposed turf horse, if it's wet-fast - just like for Big Brown - that'll play into his hands."