Mott a winner at Churchill

| October 27, 2011
Reed Palmer Photography, Churchill Downs Bill Mott, all-time winingest Churchill Downs trainer, is back in town for the Breeders’ Cup.

Reed Palmer Photography,
Churchill Downs
Bill Mott, all-time winingest Churchill Downs trainer, is back in town for the Breeders’ Cup.

Although he has yet to win its biggest race, Bill Mott is still far in front on the list of all-time wins at Churchill Downs and the Hall of Famer is back in Louisville in search of more big wins for his resumé.

The 58-year-old South Dakota native was a white-hot presence in Kentucky racing in the early 1980s as he launched a training career in which he has conditioned five champions that include two-time Horse of the Year Cigar, won six Breeders’ Cup races and one Triple Crown race.

Mott’s training operation has been based in New York for years, but he has always kept a string at Churchill Downs. And he has been back at his old home track over the past two weeks to prepare a contingent of five horses that will compete beneath the Twin Spires in the Breeders’ Cup World Championships on Nov. 4-5.

Mott is the career leader in victories (649) and stakes wins (80) at Churchill Downs, and hopes to add to those totals with success by his group of five that includes:

  • Royal Delta, winner of Saratoga’s Alabama and a contender in the Ladies’ Classic, which Mott won last year with Unrivaled Belle;
  • The 3-year-old To Honor and Serve, winner of the Pennsylvania Derby, and Drosselmeyer, who gave Mott his first Classic win in last year’s Belmont Stakes, in the $5 million Classic;
  • Courageous Cat, who will take on three-time defending winner Goldikova and many of the world’s top turf horses in the TVG Mile;
  • And Birdrun, a long-winded type who will be among the horses-to-beat in the Marathon.

It will be the mildest of surprises if Mott, who a few years back noted that he had been around Churchill Downs so long that he “remembered when you could see across the infield,” enjoys significant success in this year’s two-day Breeders’ Cup extravaganza. After all, his exploits landed him in racing’s Hall of Fame in 1998 at the age of 45.

He was the youngest trainer to earn that honor, and his victory total is now well north of 4,000.

His best chances for success next weekend at his old home track would appear to lie with a pair of 3-year-olds: Royal Delta and To Honor and Serve.

The former is a 3-year-old filly by Empire Maker who Mott considered running in the Kentucky Oaks, but decided the lightly-raced filly just wasn’t ready. His decision to pass the Oaks was validated with a summer campaign that culminated in Royal Delta’s win in the Alabama, a victory that mean just as much to Mott, or even more, than an Oaks triumph.

“Frankly, she was just too tender to run in a race like that,” Mott said. “It paid off later, the way we played it.”

Royal Delta will be among the favorites in the Ladies’ Classic that has lost some punch with the retirement of Blind Luck, the 2010 Kentucky Oaks winner and 2010 Ladies’ Classic runner-up, and Havre de Grace, who would have been a heavy favorite in the Ladies’ Classic, but is expected to battle males in the Classic in a bid for Horse of the Year honors.

To Honor and Serve started the year as a major contender for the Kentucky Derby, but a couple of disappointing races and a minor ailment put him on the shelf until late summer. He comes into the Breeders’ Cup off a fast and impressive win in the Pennsylvania Derby.

Mott still hopes for success in the Kentucky Derby, but figures that it will come when and if it comes.  Unlike trainers like D. Wayne Lukas, Todd Pletcher, Bob Baffert or Nick Zito, Mott does not list the Derby as a primary focus of his stable’s operation.

And he is still a young man, after all. The great Charlie Whittingham did not earn his first of two Kentucky Derby victories until he was 73, when he saddled Ferdinand to win the 1986 Run for the Roses. Whittingham won his second Derby with Sunday Silence in 1989 at a youthful 76.

Mott has welcomed lots of visitors to his barn during his unusually long stay in Louisville and seems happy and very much at ease. That could be interpreted in a show of faith in his Breeders’ Cup quintet, but those who have been around him for years know that’s just the way he carries himself.

He has picked up little, if any, additional baggage in his career. Most in racing will tell you that if you are doing things Mott’s way, you are doing them the right way. And, along with their accomplishments listed on paper in their past performances, the attention for his horses is a measure of respect for their trainer.

A Kentucky trainer once told me that he would never claim a lower-level horse out of the Mott barn. “If Mott can’t get it out of them,” he said. “I’ve got no chance.”

If Mott’s horses are on the scene for Breeders’ Cup competition or any big races, they are here because he believes they have a strong chance for success. A win or two for Mott in next week’s Breeders’ Cup Championships would produce smiles on the faces of local racing fans and others throughout the sport.

And they would not be a surprise. After all, no one knows the path to the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs better than Bill Mott.

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