08/24/2011 2:39PM

Saratoga: Mott, Juddmonte shooting for first Travers

Barbara D. Livingston
Raison d'Etat gets some schooling at Saratoga on Wednesday.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Bill Mott was both in the enviable and unenviable position of becoming the private trainer for the North America division of Juddmonte Farms in the wake of fellow trainer Bobby Frankel’s death in the fall of 2009.

Sure, any trainer would want to get his hands on the horses with the pedigrees that Prince Khalid Abdullah’s Juddmonte Farms produces. With those royally bred pedigrees comes a high level of expectations, and Frankel met them. During his tenure with Juddmonte, Frankel won 349 races, including 115 graded stakes.

Despite having trained for Juddmonte in the past and having a track record that landed him in the Hall of Fame in 1998 at the age of 45, Mott admitted to feeling some pressure when he took over the Juddmonte string at the beginning of 2010.

“It all comes from within,” Mott, 58, said. “It’s all about wanting to maintain the standard.”

Mott did that quite well in 2010, winning 14 races from 73 Juddmonte starters. He won six graded stakes for Juddmonte including four Grade 1’s with the turf mare Proviso. Though Mott has gone 12 for 58 with Juddmonte runners in 2011, Aviate’s victory in the Grade 2 Churchill Distaff Turf Mile is Juddmonte’s only graded stakes success in the United States this year.

Now, Mott doesn’t have the numbers that Frankel had. Whereas Frankel would have between 30 and 40 Juddmonte runners – including several who had proven themselves in Europe before coming here – Mott has 19 for Juddmonte, six of whom are unraced 2-year-olds.

This weekend in Saratoga, Mott will send out a trio of Juddmonte runners in graded stakes, including the 3-year-old Raison d’Etat in Saturday’s $1 million Travers Stakes. Neither Mott nor Juddmonte has ever won the Travers. Mott has two runner-up finishes from five starters, while Juddmonte has never run a horse in this race. Mott will also run Aviate in Saturday’s Grade 2 Ballston Spa and Acronym in Sunday’s Grade 1 Personal Ensign Invitational for Juddmonte.

The closest Juddmonte came to running in the Travers was 2003 when Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker, trained by Frankel, made it past the entry box. But Frankel was never truly happy with the way Empire Maker came out of his runner-up finish to Strong Hope in the Jim Dandy three weeks before the Travers and wanted to give him time off. The horse was eventually retired.

With only one win from four career starts, Raison d’Etat will be, on paper, the least accomplished of the 10 3-year-olds entered to run in Saturday’s Travers at 1 1/4 miles. But as the progeny of Grade 1 winners A.P. Indy and Sightseek, he may be the best-bred colt in the field.

“We’re not just interested in races for the sake of being represented,” said Garrett O’Rourke, the farm manager for Juddmonte’s North America division. “This is a horse because of his pedigree could be a top 4-year-old, so there was no rush for us to go into the Travers. Bill and Prince Khalid were on the same page that if this horse started to show he belongs in the race we should look at it.”

From a speed-figure perspective, O’Rourke and Mott both believe Raison d’Etat – which translates to reason of state – fits with this Travers field that includes Preakness winner Shackleford, Belmont Stakes winner Ruler On Ice, Haskell Invitational winner Coil, and Jim Dandy winner Stay Thirsty.

“I feel like we belong with them – just is the timing right?” Mott said. “They’re more battle-tested than we are, there’s no question about that. You’re looking at horses that have been in the Preakness and the Derby and the Belmont. They’ve gone to war before – this is our second time.”

Raison d’Etat made only one start at 2 and didn’t make his 3-year-old debut until May 5 – two days before the Kentucky Derby was run. He didn’t win his first race until June 18 when he drew away from a field of maidens at Belmont to win by 7 3/4 lengths. He was sent off the 8-5 favorite in the Curlin Stakes here on July 29, where he ran second to a loose-on-the lead Turbo Compressor.

“It wasn’t a bad race – there was no pace,” Mott said. “Nobody went after the horse on the lead. We actually were the first one to go after him. The horse that figured to have some speed couldn’t keep up.”

Though an exceptional-looking colt, Raison d’Etat is still not a finished product in Mott’s eyes.

“You look at him now, he looks like a big old kid. He’s still not a mature horse,” Mott said. “He’s still got a ways to go.”

O’Rourke said he recalled a meeting between Mott and Prince Khalid at last year’s Breeders’ Cup where Khalid told Mott that there were no expectations of Raison d’Etat until the summer of his 3-year-old year, because Sightseek didn’t win her first race until July 28 of her 3-year-old season.

“This guy definitely started to show with each race that the light’s definitely coming on,” O’Rourke said. “We hope improvement will continue. If it does, it puts him right up there.”

Mott hopes whatever happens Saturday, it marks just the start of what Raison d’Etat will eventually become.

“In all fairness, he has gotten better, and he seems to be a horse that continues to get better,” Mott said. “Does that mean he’s at his peak on Travers Day? Maybe not. Hopefully whatever he does he’ll still continue to improve after that and go on and be a nice 4-year-old.”