By Ray Paulick
Nineteen eighty-four was a big year for trainer Bill Mott. In the space of eight days in April he won the first and second Grade 1 races of his career, taking the Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park with John Franks' Heatherten and the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland with William Lucas' Taylor's Special.
Taylor's Special became Mott's first starter in a Triple Crown race, finishing 13th behind Swale in the Kentucky Derby at odds of 6-1.
In the ensuing years, victories in American Graded Stakes came regularly for the South Dakota native. Heatherten won four more Grade 1 events in 1984-85 and a new star in the Mott barn, Theatrical, captured six Grade 1s in 1987. That started an association with the late Allen Paulson, who developed a dominant racing and breeding operation that would eventually supply Mott with a steady string of top-class colts and fillies led by two-time Horse of the Year Cigar.
But the relationship got off to a rocky start, because Mott was loyal to Bertram and Diana Firestone, who bred Theatrical and co-owned him with Paulson. Mott sided with Firestone in a dispute over whose silks Theatrical would carry in the 1987 Breeders' Cup Turf. When the colt was retired to stud at Paulson's Brookside Farm and Mott asked for a lifetime breeding right that most trainers receive, Paulson told him to ask Firestone. Instead of that valuable lifetime breeding right, according to Jay Hovdey in his 1996 biography “Cigar: America's Horse,” Mott received a framed picture of Theatrical in the mail one day with the following inscription: “Best wishes, Allen Paulson.”
That began one of the few slumps, if you could call it that, in the career of Bill Mott, who at 45 years old became the youngest trainer ever inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in 1998. From 1989-91, though he won 23 American Graded Stakes, none of them came in a Grade 1 race. The Grade 1 drought ended in 1992 when Fraise, a horse owned by Paulson's wife, Madeleine, won the G1 duo of the Sword Dancer Handicap and Breeders' Cup Turf—Mott's second win in that race. By now, Mott was getting a reputation, deserved or not, as a turf specialist.
It's not that Mott, or, for that matter, Paulson, had no interest in winning Triple Crown races. Paulson was breeding the kind of horses who were often late maturing or seemed better suited to turf, and Mott was never the kind of horseman willing to jeopardize a horse's career to get him ready for the rigors of a Triple Crown campaign.
Thus, after his initial flop in the Kentucky Derby with Taylor's Special in 1984, Mott didn't saddle another horse in America's most famous race until 2-year-old champion and reigning Horse of the Year Favorite Trick was turned over to him in 1998. That year he also sent out the overmatched Rock and Roll at the insistence of co-owners Jenny Craig and Madeleine Paulson, and neither horse came close. Since then, there have only been four other Derby starters: Blue Burner in 2002 (11th), Court Vision (13th) and Z Humor (14th) in 2008, and Hold Me Back (12th) in 2009.
Mott's zero for seven record in the Derby isn't in Todd Pletcher country (Pletcher ended his Derby futility this year after going zero for 24), but added to his failures in the Preakness (zero for two) and Belmont (zero for four), getting blanked in the Triple Crown was becoming a glaring omission on his resume.
Then along came Drosselmeyer, who showed promise in a Gulfstream Park allowance race but failed to deliver in two subsequent stakes. As a result, he was shut out of the Derby starting gate because his Graded Stakes earnings didn't put him in the top 20. On the morning of this year's post position draw for the Derby, I ran into Mott and asked if he thought he would ever win the Run for the Roses.
“I think I've got a horse this year that's good enough to win it,” he said. I considered that Drosselmeyer could do no better than third in a pair of stakes at Fair Grounds this winter and began to wonder if Mott had suddenly gotten delirious or was trying to channel Rick Dutrow.
Turns out it was neither. As usual, Mott knew what he was talking about. The ever-patient horseman regrouped and pointed the son of Distorted Humor to the final leg of the Triple Crown, giving him a useful prep in the Dwyer Stakes, where he finished second to Fly Down. A Hall of Fame rider switch, from Kent Desormeaux to Mike Smith, and a few solid but unspectacular workouts followed, and Mott had Drosselmeyer ready for the race of his life on Belmont Day.
The win was textbook Mott: unspectacular and understated, but effective. Drosselmeyer's victory, Mott's first in a Triple Crown race, was the 80th Grade 1 stakes win of his career and the 340th in an American Graded Stakes.
Slow and steady wins the race.
(Statistics provided courtesy of Equibase)
Copyright © 2010, Ray Paulick
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