Derby victory would certify Mott's skill

Saturday, May 2, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Bill Mott, 44, is youngest trainer elected to Hall of Fame.
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LOUISVILLE -- Bill Mott cannot be measured in two minutes. He has gone too far in racing to be defined by his finish in the Kentucky Derby.

Winning it is his goal. It is not his Holy Grail.

"I'm sure it means more to some than it does to me," said the trainer of Favorite Trick. "It means a lot, but it has not been the whole focus."

This was Mott's official position on Derby pressure Friday morning, as he stood before Barn No. 19 at Churchill Downs. It is a position that is subject to change.

Serious horsemen think it unseemly to obsess over the Kentucky Derby, at least until they've won one. "Derby Fever" is supposed to be for undignified dilettantes; for the spotlight-seeking owners of inferior horseflesh. The real professionals recognize the Derby as the biggest prize in their business, but they don't want to come off like Captain Ahab or D. Wayne Lukas.

Keeps emotions in check

Bill Mott is not much interested in appearances. At the age of 44, he is the youngest trainer elected to the Hall of Fame, beating the genius, Allen Jerkens, by two years. He has the scruffy tendencies of a stablehand. He stands with his hands thrust deep in his pockets, a weathered baseball cap pulled tight across his brow, and his emotions as carefully concealed as his fingers and his forehead.

If Mott aches to win the Derby, he is not likely to admit it. "It's a tough game," he said Friday. "You have to earn every bit of it. To be considered for greatness, I realize what you have to go through."

If this remark seemed unusually candid for a close-lipped character, it is because Mott was speaking of his horse, not himself. Favorite Trick is the first reigning Horse of the Year in the Derby since Secretariat, and any comparison to that colt gives rise to enormous expectations.

"He has to come out as a 3-year-old and make a statement," Mott said. "I think he's a good horse and I'm blessed to have him. I also know that in people's minds, when they consider greatness, they want to see this horse win the Derby."

Trainers are not judged so narrowly. There is more to their craft than convincing 3-year-olds to run a mile and a quarter on the first Saturday in May, enough that Mott has been able to make his reputation despite a 13th-place finish in his only previous Derby (1984).

Handled Cigar
He is best known for saddling Cigar, whose 16-race winning streak matched the modern record set by Citation. Between 1980 and 1986, Mott won nine different meet training titles at Churchill Downs.

That Taylor's Special had been his only Derby horse was variously viewed as proof of his restraint or evidence he was intimidated. Pat Byrne, who trained Favorite Trick during his 2-year-old campaign, suggested Mott "breaks out in hives" at the thought of the Derby.

"When I first took (Favorite Trick), that was the thought," Mott conceded. "It was almost to the point where I could chuckle about it myself. But you have to play the hand you're dealt. You work with what you've got and do the best you can."

Though Mott will enter two Derby horses today -- Cincinnatian Joseph LaCombe's Favorite Trick and long shot Rock and Roll -- his prosperity is primarily because of his success with older horses. His posterity will be largely determined by how he does with 3-year-olds.

An ESPN Chilton poll released Friday revealed 69.1 percent of adults are "not at all" interested in horse racing. To many spectators, the Kentucky Derby is the only horse race worth watching. To most horsemen, it is the one event that transcends their sport.

"I wish there was a button on my body I could push to get that feeling again," trainer Bob Baffert said of his victory last year with Silver Charm. "It was an unbelievable feeling. My stomach hurt so much when they hit the wire, I couldn't move."

Much as Bill Mott would like to experience some of these sensations this afternoon, he said he would not feel "incomplete" if he should fail. "Not yet," he said. "I've got time."

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