By Christina Bossinakis
When it comes to training racehorses, Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott has pretty much seen it all over the past half a century. In 2019, however, Churchill Downs served as a backdrop for a rare first for the Hall of Famer, who captured his first GI Kentucky Derby with ‘TDN Rising Star’ Country House (Lookin At Lucky). Fast forward a year and Mott closes in on another personal first, namely his 5,000th career win, which places him seventh overall, and fourth among leading active trainers.
“I am proud of the fact that we have won that many races and many of those wins came at the top racing circuits,” admitted the 66-year-old. “But it is also a matter of pride, because there are so few people who have reached that mark. Without a doubt, getting there is a landmark, but the next day, it’ll be over and we’ll be shooting for the next winner.”
And while some may pinpoint a single event or moment that put them on the road to realizing their fate, the Mobridge, South Dakota, native believes that it was a series of deft pivots that propelled his career.
“Opportunities present themselves, and I believe what you do with those opportunities determines your success,” he said. “In my career, I think I was lucky and made a lot of good choices when those opportunities presented themselves.”
A career with horses appeared inevitable for the young Mott, whose father, Tom, was a large animal practitioner in South Dakota. Through his father, Mott was introduced to a family of horsemen which would leave a sizeable footprint in racing, the Asmussens, led by its patriarch, Keith, a well-known horseman and Quarter Horse jockey. Responsible for a pair of sons who would go on to distinguish themselves in racing–Hall of Fame trainer, Steve, and Eclipse Award-winning apprentice and renowned international champion jockey, Cash–Keith invested in some horses with the elder Mott and that alliance would lead to a summer job opportunity at the track for his son in 1967 when Bill was only 14 years old.
The following summer, the Mott worked for Ray Goehring, and that position took him to several area tracks, including Fort Pierre, Aberdeen and Park Jefferson, also where future Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas would cut his teeth early on. Mott took out his own training license at 16 in 1969.
“I had a horse [My Assets] of my own that we had purchased for $320,” said Mott, recalling his initial trainee. “We ran her the first time at Fort Pierre in South Dakota [in 1968], and my dad was down as the trainer because I was only 15. She had her second win [officially] for me at Park Jefferson.”
“I don’t believe any win that I have ever had could have surpassed that first win,” he laughed. “If you can imagine, it was only a $500 purse and she dead-heated for the win, but it was probably as big a thrill as I have ever had in my life. It was all history from there. From that point on, I knew what I was going to do. It probably ruined my education because as soon as I went back to school, I couldn’t concentrate. All I could think about was training horses.”
Mott was later introduced to Bob Irwin, who hailed from the same hometown–Columbus, Nebraska–as Hall of Fame trainer Marion Van Berg. Irwin, a pupil of the renowned horseman, went out on his own after the Van Berg passed away in 1971. During his time with Irwin, Mott worked along the Detroit Race Course [Livonia, Michigan] and Oaklawn Park [Hot Springs, Arkansas] circuits in early 70’s before joining leading trainer Jack Van Berg, who was destined to join his father in the Hall of Fame in 1985.
“Boy, I asked a lot of questions,” said Mott of his tenures with Irwin and Van Berg. “I had some horses on my own, but when I went to work for Bob and then for Jack, I realized I had a lot to learn. I was already winning races, but it was like going from high school to graduate school.”
And in an era when teaching the next generation was not always among a trainer’s priorities, Mott recalled that his mentor was willing to impart his vast experience.
“He certainly gave you the opportunity to learn, if you were interested,” said Mott. “You would watch and if you had questions, you would learn from him.”
A year after joining the Van Berg camp, Mott was promoted to an assistant, and his position took him to a variety of states around the country, including Nebraska, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida.
“He gave me and Frankie Brothers, also an assistant at that time, a string of horses,” recalled Mott.
Under the direction of his assistants, the Van Berg barn enjoyed plenty of success throughout the Chicago area, including a banner season in 1976 when Van Berg earned the training title at Arlington Park in addition to leading the nation with 496 victories, a record that stood until broken by Steve Asmussen, who recorded 555 winners in 2003.
Then, one of several career-defining moments presented itself. On the heels of Van Berg’s sparkling ’76 season, the legendary horseman decided to have divisions of horses run under Mott and Brothers’ names.
“He was still the engineer and was still the head of the stable, but Frankie and I were listed as the trainers,” he recalled. “We were winning a lot of races in Detroit at that time, and since I was listed as the trainer, people became familiar with my name. Looking back now, I think that gave me a big opportunity, because it put my name out there and gave me some name recognition. We won a lot of races around Detroit, Chicago, and that helped me early on.”
In 1978, Van Berg moved his operation to the West Coast, and Mott decided to open his own public stable in the east.
“[Jack] left the midwest and went way west, so it left me with two or three of the clients we had been training for,” he said. “We were winning right off the bat. I wound up having some clients in Detroit and then I took some to Kentucky. I had great clients in both places. And it picked right up from there.”
Through the next four decades, Mott’s ascent continued, and the horseman was responsible for six champions; Theatrical (Ire) (Nureyev) (Ch. Turf Horse 1987); Paradise Creek (Irish River) (Ch. Turf Horse 1994); Cigar (Palace Music) (Ch. Older Horse and Horse of the Year 1995-96); Ajina (Strawberry Road) (Ch. 3yo Filly 1997); Escena (Strawberry Road) (Ch. Older Female 1998) and Royal Delta (Empire Maker) (Ch. 3yo Filly 2011; Ch. Older Female 2012-13). Voted the Eclipse Award trainer in 1995 and 1996, and again in 2011, Mott earned nine Saratoga training titles from 1992 through 2007; 10 titles at Belmont Park and nine at Gulfstream Park. He also ranks sixth among all trainers with 10 Breeders’ Cup victories and over $19 million in earnings. Mott, who set the record for number of wins at a single Churchill Downs meet with 54 in 1984, held the distinction of being the all-time leading trainer in wins at the Louisville oval for 31 years, beginning in 1986, before being surpassed by Dale Romans in 2017.
Mott reflected on a few of his trainees that were key players in the trajectory of his career:
Theatrical, trained by Bobby Frankel at the time Mott signed on as private trainer to the [owners/breeders Bertram and Diana] Firestones, ran second behind subsequent Turf champion Manila in the 1986 GI Breeders’ Cup Turf. Theatrical arrived in Mott’s barn in January of 1987.
“I took the private job with the Firestones, so that was my initiation into New York. That was one of the bigger moves I ever made. That’s how I wound up with Theatrical. He was my first Breeders’ Cup winner (Turf, 1987), my first champion, and although I had other Grade I winners before him, he won six Grade Is in a single season. If you ask me if there was one horse in my career that did more for me than any other horse I would say it was Theatrical.”
CIGAR (Palace Music)
Campaigned by his breeder Allen Paulson, Cigar was initially trained by Alex Hassinger, Jr. before being turned over to Mott in 1994. While under Mott’s care, the bay won 17 starts, and famously went on a 16-race win streak from 1994-1996, tying Triple Crown hero Citation), before retiring with 19 wins–including the inaugural G1 Dubai World Cup and the 1995 GI Breeders’ Cup Classic–and $9,999,815 in earnings.
“Cigar was another major push in my career. He came to us at Hialeah–[trainer] Tom Albertrani was my assistant at the time–and from there we took him to New York. I had never been on him, and one day I took him to the Belmont training track and I galloped him. I came back to the barn and I said, ‘Whoa, this is some kind of a machine. This horse is special.'”
“He had been coming off turf races, so I ran him on the turf a couple of times and then we finally decided we better do something else and put him back on the dirt and that’s when the [win] streak started. After Cigar won his race at Oaklawn [GI Oaklawn H., spring of 1995], I pulled my guys aside and said, ‘You better sit back and really enjoy this because I don’t know if we’ll ever see this again. The thrill of when he won the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Belmont made for a perfect year. He was 10 for 10 [in 1995] and won the Classic and did it so convincingly. In my opinion, that was Tom Durkin’s greatest race call of all time. It was a great feeling.”
ROYAL DELTA (Empire Maker)
Royal Delta initially raced as a homebred for Prince Saud bin Khaled’s Palides Investments. After annexing the 2011 GI Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic while racing for Prince Saud’s estate following his death, she sold in a dispersal sale to Ben Leon’s Besilu Stables for $8.5 million at the 2011 Keeneland November sale. She was voted 2011 Champion 3yo Filly and later added another Ladies’ Classic at four in addition to two collecting two more titles as Champion Older Mare in 2012-13.
“I was lucky enough to get her back after the sale, and I probably owe that to Dale Romans,” Mott said with a laugh. “I was watching her sell and I had no idea if I was going to get her back, since Mr. Leon had horses with other trainers [Todd Pletcher]. The hammer fell at $8.5 million and the media rushed over to Mr. Leon, who I didn’t know at the time. And Dale, who was sitting behind me in the sale pavilion, pushed me and said, ‘Go and say hello to that guy!’ And when I didn’t get up right away, he literally shoved me right out of my chair and said, ‘Would you get up? Get up and go over there and say hello to that guy!’ So I did. As Mr. Leon was leaving the pavilion, I congratulated him and told him that he bought himself a wonderful mare. He asked me if I had a business card, and of course, I didn’t. But I gave him my number and as they say, the rest is history. I got to keep her and she went on to be a three-time Champion.”
Chasing the Classics…
Mott has overseen a diverse array of horses through the years, having conditioned some of the sport’s most iconic runners of either gender. And despite the quality of runners on both major surfaces, Mott developed a reputation as a ‘turf’ trainer, a moniker he both welcomes and questions.
“Interestingly enough, I probably won 2000 races on the dirt before I even knew there was a turf course anywhere,” said Mott with tongue firmly in cheek. “Because I had Theatrical and had the Firestone job, and a lot of the good horses I had for them were imported from Europe. Of course, I trained for Mr. Paulson and his horses had a lot of European influence in them too, so I kind of got the reputation of being a turf trainer and as somebody that was patient. Consequently, I didn’t get too many Derby-type horses. They sent them somewhere else.”
“You get pigeon-holed, as a guy who does well with fillies or turf horses,” he said. “Or maybe the Triple Crown guy. And as it worked out, I wasn’t pegged as the Triple Crown guy. But, the way I look at it, at least I was something!”
Breaking through that particular ceiling for the trainer was Drosselmeyer (Distorted Humor), the first horse to win a Classic for Mott. Campaigned by WinStar Farm, the chestnut won the 2010 GI Belmont S.
“More recently, I’ve become a little more aggressive about [the Classics],” he said. “I do want to participate if we have the right horse, but you do want to have the right horse and feel like you have a chance.”
Case in point is the 2019 renewal of the Kentucky Derby, Mott, who had only run 14 horses in any Classic previously, appeared to be well-armed with Tacitus, winner of the GII Wood Memorial S.; and GII Tampa Bay Derby and Country House (Lookin At Lucky), runner up in the GII Risen Star S. and third in the GI Arkansas Derby.
“I felt like Country House and Tacitus both had a good chance in last year’s Derby and that’s why we went,” he recalled. “Country House was coming off a good race and he seemed to be improving slowly. I didn’t realize he could jump that far forward on [Kentucky Derby] day. He finished third in Arkansas and three weeks later he jumped way forward as far as the effort goes. He just ran a terrific race. We were thrilled. We were second with Country House and fourth with Tacitus. We were so pleased with their efforts. Country House ran a winning race.”
On a rain-soaked day, the horses splashed past the wire, and while Maximum Security (New Year’s Day) appeared to be the winner, the ensuing drama that was about to unfold would prove to be one for the ages. And Mott, like many other seasoned veterans and fans, watched the spectacle play out in amazement as Maximum Security was disqualified after 23 minutes of deliberation and placed 17th, moving Country House into first with Tacitus inheriting third.
“That experience has to take the cake,” he recalled. “It was not far from being a complete blur. I was a bit numb at that point. We had been thrilled to death to be second and I can’t say I was any happier that they put his number up, so what had happened really didn’t set in. All I knew was there were a lot of dissatisfied people when I looked back at the stands. I had some mixed emotions about that. But I don’t feel like there were many knowledgeable horse people that felt it was a bad call.”
At the end of it all, in whatever fashion the win was earned, a win is still a win. In retrospect, Mott is pragmatic about his Derby-winning experience.
“It was little bit of a relief, but now it makes me want to win it more,” he said. “I’d like to win it again, but this time I want to win it by daylight. It inspired me. And I like to show everyone that this was no fluke.”
Propelled by hard work, consistency and an unwavering commitment to his profession, Mott never really worried about the titles, championships and accolades along the way. Nonetheless, success came calling, culminating with his induction into Racing’s Hall of Fame in 1998. At the age of 45, he became the youngest Thoroughbred trainer to earn the honor in his first year on the ballot.
“I’m glad it happened then, and got that out of the way,” he said with a laugh. “By that time, I had a lot of winners and I think Cigar had a lot to do with that, too. It was really a thrill.”
He added, “But I don’t want to rest on my laurels because I’m in the Hall of Fame or I’ve won the Derby. I actually think it makes me try harder and try and do a better job and make better decisions. I don’t ever want to look back and say that I got lazy or passive.”
Granted opportunities to learn from the likes of top horsemen Jack Van Berg and Bob Irwin, Mott offered some of the insight he’s gleaned through five decades of training to the next generation of horsemen.
“My advice to anyone starting in this business is use good common sense and play by the rules,” he said. “You’ve got to win and be productive to stay in the business, but don’t give into the outside pressures that might make you do something not within the rules. Just do your best, work hard and do the best possible for your horses. Rules are becoming more stringent and even when you are trying to stay within the rules, it’s easy to make a mistake sometimes, but don’t try and make a mistake. ”
And while Mott admits he doesn’t think there is a set recipe for his success, he points to three things, without which, he believes, would have made it impossible to have scaled the heights he has attained.
“I’ve been fortunate in that I have many of the same owners for years,” he explained. “I’ve been proud of the fact that there might have been people that left, and even though I didn’t have anything for them for a while, they thought enough of us to come back. I also have great staff, and have had been very lucky to have quality horses sent to me over the years. It’s put me where I am today.”
Among the key members of the current Mott team, son Riley, who had been working for his father in some capacity since early childhood, joined his father’s operation full time after graduating from University of Kentucky in 2014. When asked to compare himself to his son, Mott didn’t miss a beat.
“He has a much better personality than I do,” he said with a hearty laugh. “He’s better educated than I was, and he’s very passionate about the business. He’s there when they turn the lights on in the morning and he’s a hard worker.”
Mott realizes that, as an in integral member of the team, the junior Mott will in all likelihood look to make his own way one day, as did he over 40 years ago. And what does Mott aspire for his son?
“From a father’s perspective, I can only hope he will do better than I have done,” he said. “That’s naturally what you want for your son. You want them to reach whatever heights they’re capable of. It’s been fun watching him and I’ll be very interested to see what happens in the future.”
And if there is a single quality the accomplished horseman hopes he will have imparted to his son before launching his own stable, he said without hesitation, “To me, being honest and straightforward is the most honorable thing I could ask for.”