Roger Maris lost a lot of his hair from the pressure of his pursuit of Babe Ruth's home run record in 1961. He was forever known in baseball as Roger Maris, you know, the guy with the asterisk after his name.
Bill Mott already had a thinning hairline, even before he took on the pressure of having to defend Country House's victory by disqualification in the Kentucky Derby. Would the public put an asterisk after his name too? Let's hope not.
This is one of the most decent men in Thoroughbred racing, a trainer who never pursued the Derby aggressively; ten entries in over 30 years. He always brought his charges along slowly, knowing they didn't fully mature until their 4-year-old year. He was never in a rush, like Dinny Phipps and Paul Mellon, who didn't win their first Derbys until they were in in their 70's. Bill Mott is 65 and like Phipps and Mellon already in the Hall of Fame in Saratoga.
When you grow up in Mobridge, South Dakota, and learn the business the hard way by mucking out stalls when you're barely a teenager in sub-zero winters you learn patience. I went to Mobridge some 25 years ago when Mott was astounding the racing world by taking Cigar on his then record 16-race winning journey, winding up just a few bucks short of $10,000,000 in earnings. Cigar was a floundering 4-year-old turf horse with nothing but a pedigree to offer, before Mott turned him into a champion.
In Mobridge, I talked to the people he grew up with, his family members, his mentors, and to a person they talked about his humility. His chief mentor was an old-fashioned Great Plains horseman named Ray Goehring who made him the boss of his stable when Mott was still a teenager. “All the other help I hired, they'd skip a day, sore toe or something, not Billy,” said Goehring. “He had his heart and soul in the horse business.” I'm certain the folks in Mobridge are rejoicing over the Derby victory by their hard-working native son.
That's why I cringed as I watched Bill Mott have to defend himself and Country House for what happened in Louisville. He was the first central figure in the disqualification dispute to state the facts; that a violation had occurred involving the winner Maximum Security and it was up to the stewards to decide how to enforce the rules. It might have sounded self-serving, except this was Bill Mott speaking; the same Bill Mott who was the youngest trainer ever installed in the Hall of Fame, the same Bill Mott who won three Eclipse Awards for outstanding trainer. If ever there was a trainer with an impeccable pedigree, this was racing's man, an upper Midwesterner who could shine a light on the good side of racing in these troubling times for the “sport of kings.”
And after all the on-online bickering and name-calling from disgruntled bettors and racing irregulars that followed in the 24-hour postmortem hysteria, here comes word from the people in the know, his fellow trainers who had horses in the race.
Shug McGaughey, the long-time Phipps trainer and winner of the 2013 Derby with Orb, told the Washington Post, “”When I saw the pictures last night, I have to agree the stewards made the right call.” Mark Casse, whose mount War of Will narrowly avoided a catastrophic collision with Maximum Security, also told the Washington Post, “That controversy yesterday was nothing next to the controversy that would have happened had our horse fallen.” And Todd Pletcher, who has won two Derbys and seven Eclipse Awards, told Newsday, “It was a call you have to make. I think it sends a great message for the integrity of the sport at a time when we've been under fire.”
So now Bill Mott and the Country House connections have two weeks in which to make a big decision. Do they send him back out for the Preakness, a shorter race than the Derby and one for which Country House's late-running style is probably not best suited — or do they disappoint the Triple Crown fanatics who would deem it blasphemy not to take the shot at joining the historical 13 who have won it — and avoid the almost obvious full-blown controversy over whether he is in fact eligible?
It's a sticky wicket. I hope they avoid it by ducking the Preakness and wait for the Belmont, where an improving Country House would have a real shot at crossing the finish line first. And if Maximum Security made it that far, it would set up a classic rematch. And I, for one, would be betting on Billy Mott to come out on top — and send the asterisk off into space.
E.S “Bud” Lamoreaux III is a creator and former executive producer of CBS News Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt. He won four Eclipse Awards for national television excellence.
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