I'm sure it wasn't that much fun for trainer Todd Pletcher going 0-for-24 in the Kentucky Derby until Super Saver snapped his winless streak last year, but if you thought that ended all the talk about Derby droughts, you're wrong.
Hall of Fame conditioner Bill Mott is working on a 27-year oh-fer in America's most famous horse race, going back to 1984, when he saddled Taylor's Special to a 13th-place finish behind Swale. He's had just six others make the race since then.
Unlike Pletcher and some others who circle the first Saturday in May on their perpetual calendars, Mott has neither been obsessed with roses nor had the kind of owners – with a couple of exceptions — who felt racing begins and ends in the Churchill Downs infield winner's circle.
That doesn't mean the soft-spoken South Dakotan doesn't want to win the Derby before he hangs up his chaps. He's as competitive as anyone. But in my opinion, he's just a little bit more patient. Okay, a lot more patient.
Taylor's Special was Mott's only Derby starter in the 1980s, and he had just two in the '90s: Horse of the Year Favorite Trick and Rock and Roll, both in 1998. Favorite Trick, unbeaten as a 2-year-old when trained by Patrick Byrne, was transferred to Mott for his 3-year-old season and never had the look of a horse that could get the Derby distance of a mile and a quarter. He finished eighth behind Real Quiet. Rock and Roll was a horse purchased late in the game by Madeleine Paulson (now Pickens) and Jenny Craig, presumably because they had picked out Derby outfits and felt the need to run a horse in the race. He beat one horse at 50-1.
Since the turn of the century, the 57-year-old conditioner has had four Derby starters: Blue Burner (11th to War Emblem in 2002), Court Vision (13th to Big Brown in 2008), Z Humor (14th to Big Brown), and Hold Me Back (12th to Mine That Bird in 2009).
So he hasn't quite got the Kentucky Derby figured out yet.
In light of that record (one eighth-place finish, an 11th, a 12th, two 13ths, and two 14ths), it may not be saying that much to suggest that To Honor and Serve is Mott's best chance yet to win the Derby. But on Sunday in the Grade 1 Florida Derby, he'll have to step up his game a bit to give Mott and To Honor and Serve's backers some confidence He may not need to emerge with a win in a very good Florida Derby field, but To Honor and Serve has to show he can be competitive.
The Bernardini colt was a $575,000 Keeneland September yearling purchase in 2009, so expectations were always high for him. His 2-year-old form was very good, finishing second in his debut to Astrology in a very productive maiden race (Anthony's Cross was third), then coming from just off the pace to win by 8 3/4 lengths next time out when stretched out to 1 1/16 miles at Belmont Park.
He finished the year with back-to-back Grade 2 victories over Mucho Macho Man at Aqueduct in the Nashua and Remsen Stakes, going wire to wire each time.
To Honor and Serve made his 2011 debut in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth, where he chased impressive winner Soldat, tiring in the lane to be third, beaten a total of 6 3/4 lengths. Mott felt the colt needed the race and should come out of it stronger for the Florida Derby. He's worked steadily if unspectacularly ever since over the deep surface at the Payson Park training center.
Mott is a master horseman. The only question is whether or not he's got the horse. On Sunday we'll have a better idea how to answer that question.
The Florida Derby is the definitive prep race of the year so far, with top PDI ranked horses Soldat, Dialed In and Stay Thirsty awaiting To Honor and Serve. Winning isn't everything or the only thing, but moving forward on Sunday is important for any horse to have a chance at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.
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