Bill Mott: the American with a fantastic ability to train champions
A couple of statements stand out among the many things Bill Mott says as being particularly hard to square with the thoughtful character chewing over one of the most garlanded training careers in the modern era of US racing.
"I'm known not to be much of a communicator," he claims, which seems absurd given available evidence. "I think people would like more from me on that; they'd like me to talk better. I mean, it's a bit of a joke down here."
Such matters are relative: we are not talking Lester Piggott or Sir Michael Stoute in this instance. Still, the 58-year-old whose name is synonymous with the great Cigar suggests he has been caught in an unusually talkative mood when I visit him at his winter base in Florida. Yet if Mott chooses words carefully, he is far from laconic.
Then comes the second unlikely assertion. "You know, I don't really look back too much," he says, before going on to spend a good three or four hours reminiscing, South Dakota monotone betraying distant roots on the other side of the country.
"Okay, I did some preparation because I knew you were coming a long way," he laughs, aware of the contradiction. "But really I always wanna look forward - you're only as good as what you are today."
Full name William I Mott
Born July 19, 1953, in Mobridge, South Dakota (son of veterinarian)
Family wife Tina Marie, sons Brady Thomas and Riley Tucker, daughter Olivia
Stable Approximately 100 horses, based primarily in New York and Kentucky after winter stint in Florida
Started training late 1960s while still in high school, then worked as assistant to Jack van Berg among others in mid-1970s before taking out a licence as public trainer in 1978
Career victories 4,153 (to January 12)
Prize-money earnings $199,735,990 (to January 12)
4,000th winner Mystic (Saratoga, August 7, 2010)
US Horse of the Year Cigar (1995, 1996)
Champions (5) Paradise Creek (1994 turf male), Theatrical (1987 turf male), Cigar (1995, 1996 older male), Ajina (1997 3yo filly), Escena (1998 older female) Royal Delta (nominated for 2011 Eclipse award to be announced on Monday)
Breeders' Cup winners (8) Classic (Cigar 1995, Drosselmeyer 2011), Ladies' Classic (Ajina 1997, Escena 1998, Unrivaled Belle 2010, Royal Delta 2011), Turf (Theatrical 1987, Fraise 1992)
Dubai World Cup winner Cigar (1996, inaugural winner)
Classic winner Drosselmeyer (Belmont Stakes 2010)
Other major horses Banshee Breeze, Courageous Cat, Favorite Trick, Geri, Go Between, Heatherten, My Typhoon, Proviso, Royal Anthem, Taylor's Special, To Honor And Serve, Wekiva Springs
Other major races won Alabama (2), Arlington Million, Canadian International, Apple Blossom Hcap (3), Blue Grass, Diana Hcap (4), Donn Hcap (2), Hollywood Derby, Hollywood Gold Cup, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational (2), Man o'War, Mother Goose, Oaklawn Hcap (2), Pacific Classic, Pimlico Special, Shadwell Turf Mile, Test (2), Washington DC International, Woodward (2)
Eclipse Awards as outstanding trainer (2) 1995, 1996 Nominated for 2011 (result Monday)
Hall of Fame inducted 1998 age 45 (youngest-ever Flat trainer)
Major-track training titles Belmont Park (10 times) Churchill Downs (9), Gulfstream Park (10), Keeneland (9), Saratoga (9)
Notable feats Trained Cigar to 16 straight wins in 1994-96; fourth on all-time earnings list in US and ninth in career victories; second on all-time money list at Breeders' Cup with $14.4m; winningmost trainer at Churchill Downs (also holds record for single meeting there with 54 in 1984 spring meet)
Fortunately, Mott's 'today' is none too shabby, even in the shadow of a glorious past. Two months ago at the Breeders' Cup he saddled Drosselmeyer and Dubai World Cup-bound Royal Delta to become only the second trainer to win both the Classic and the Ladies' Classic in the same year.
D Wayne Lukas is the only trainer to have won more prize-money at the Breeders' Cup than Mott, who stands fourth overall in total career earnings in North America and ninth in career victories with more than 4,000. Universally respected, Mott won backto-back Eclipse Awards as America's outstanding trainer in 1995 and 1996, when Cigar landed his pair of Horse of the Year titles and put together a celebrated 16-race winning streak.
Among a multitude of Grade 1 events, Cigar's successes included the Breeders' Cup Classic and the inaugural Dubai World Cup, an unforgettable duel in the desert. Now, 15 years after Cigar's retirement, Mott is on the Eclipse shortlist again as he bids to land the accolade for the third time.
Mott was the trainer to whom Khalid Abdullah turned when his long-serving US trainer Bobby Frankel died in 2009; Mott repaid the faith by saddling former Andre Fabre-trained Proviso to four Grade 1 wins the following year. In 2012 he'll be handling ex-French Group 1 winners Mutual Trust and Announce among a string based mainly in New York and Kentucky - plus, over the winter, at the Payson Park Training Center about 120 miles north of Miami.
In contrast to the mega-businesses of someone like Steve Asmussen, who has horses all over the country at numerous separate bases, Mott maintains a stable strength of just 100. "That's the average," he explains. "Right now, I've got a few down at Gulfstream as well and some still in New York. I've had more horses in the past, up to 140 or 150 for a brief period, but I don't like it. I can't stay zeroed in on that number, it is too much for me.
"Guys like Steve Asmussen, Todd Pletcher – I think they're brilliant at what they do but I'm different. I can keep 90 or 100 and I know what they are doing, their wellbeing and I know basically where I'm gonna run them; I know where I'm going with them. If I get over that, I start to lose track a little bit."
Therein lies the secret both of Mott's career longevity and his success. Despite having started off with a reputation as a claiming-race whizzkid, this noted horseman is now famed for a patient, methodical approach, operating almost exclusively at the upper end of the ladder.
"I think the difference between being okay and being good is not knowing when to go with a horse, it's knowing when to stop," he says.
"Whether you're an athlete or a horse you've got to push the button at some time to get better but I think the key is knowing when they've had enough for now, when it's time to let them heal or grow. If they're good they'll come back, but if you push too hard they'll never come back."
Seldom was this better demonstrated than via the unheralded Drosselmeyer's shock Breeders' Cup Classic win. The four-year-old, injured after winning the Belmont Stakes in 2010, had hardly set the world on fire in a few runs in 2011. "It was an amazing end to what started out to be a very slow year through the first five or six months," says Mott.
"I'd like to be able to say I was smart enough to know it would end up like that with Royal Delta and Drosselmeyer but we got lucky. Drosselmeyer started getting good at the end of Saratoga [in September] and we started squeezing a little bit when we went into Churchill. You do try to save some run for the end of the year."
The son of a veterinarian, Mott has been a fixture on the racetrack since the mid-1960s in his native South Dakota, where he worked in the summer holidays for Keith Asmussen, father of Cash and Steve. "It's cow country and the winters there are nine months long," he recalls. "I worked on a ranch and owned cattle with my brothers when I was ten years old - we lived in the town but my father leased a cattle property out of town. That's how I got my first horse - we had 15 head of cattle and when I was 15 we sold them and I had a couple of thousand dollars saved up and we went and bought a horse."
What makes him great The youngest-ever Flat trainer to be inducted into the US Hall of Fame aged 45 in 1998, Mott will forever be associated with Cigar, the best American horse of the last 25 years.
The best of times Equalling Citation's winning streak of 16 with Cigar at Arlington Park in July 1996 was a highpoint, but it probably didn't match a heartstopping win in the inaugural Dubai World Cup in March the same year.
The worst of times In late 1991 when his private arrangement with powerful owner Bertram Firestone was ended as bankruptcy proceedings commenced at one of Firestone's companies, prompting a 60-horse dispersal and leaving Mott with an uncertain future. He went public again – and ended with his best season in prize-money terms in 1992.
What you didn't know about him Owned and trained his first horse aged 15 while still at high school, a $320 mare named My Assets, who ran at unrecognised meetings in South Dakota. With Mott's father's name on the licence, she landed his first win at a proper track, the now-defunct Park Jefferson.
With his father's name on the licence, Mott won races aged 15 before a major local triumph with Kosmic Tour in the South Dakota Futurity at Park Jefferson in 1970, at the ripe old age of 16. "It was worth $3,800 – I thought I was the richest guy in South Dakota," he says. "I remember it like it was yesterday – better than yesterday, if I'm being honest. It was such a lot of fun - we always had an ice bucket of peppermint schnapps in the barn!" The day after Mott graduated from high school, he was on the road, taking horses to places like Denver, Colorado and Lincoln, Nebraska. "That's where I started – the 'bushies', the fairs, and I did okay but I always had that comfort that I could go home to my parents after the summer."
Push came to shove when Mott realised he had to stop messing about and make a living somehow. "It finally kicked in – where am I going with this?" he says. "I loved it – I did it because I was passionate about it. It was never about the money and it never has been about the money. I loved horses and I still love horses. I do it because I love it and you know what happened, the money followed and I make a nice living, but back then I had to decide where I was going."
The tipping point came in the depth of midwinter when his father was incapacitated after a cow kicked him and he accidently vaccinated himself. "He was pretty sick so me and my buddy had to inject 200 head of cattle with rednose," he says. "They had snotty noses, and out there it's cold - I mean, it's really cold. There I was injecting the eyelids on these cattle, giving them antibiotics and I'm thinking, I'm getting out of here - when my dad gets well, I'm going south. I'm getting back to the racetrack."
Various stints as assistant trainer followed, most notably with Hall of Fame trainer Jack van Berg, with whom he owned a few horses, enjoying success in the claiming game. Mott was one of Nebraskanborn Van Berg's sidekicks when he trained 496 winners in 1976, a record that stood until 2003 when Steve Asmussen won 555.
Mott says he learned an "awful lot" in those three years before setting up again in his own right – seriously this time, first with a small string in Detroit at the tender age of 23, soon with increased quality and quantity at Churchill Downs.
What he said
'He's [Cigar] the best horse I've ever trained. He may be the best horse anyone has ever trained'
'I have a competitive nature – I want to win; I mean, we can be friends but if we're serious about it I still want to kick your ass'
What they said about him
'Nobody, I mean nobody, was as loyal as both a trainer and a friend as Bill Mott. Not to mention one of the best horsemen of our generation' Cigar's jockey Jerry Bailey, seven-time Eclipse Award winner
'Mott is arguably the best horseman in America' Washington Post columnist Andrew Beyer
'He's half horse – he can do everything' Former assistant Simon Bray, now a US TV presenter
Top dog at the latter venue by the 1980s, Mott started featuring at the top level with horses like millionaire Taylor's Special and Heatherten, who earned his first Grade 1 wins on the same weekend in 1984 (in the Blue Grass Stakes and Apple Blossom respectively). He has trained more winners than anybody else in history at Churchill Downs.
It was also here that he was headhunted by Bert and Diana Firestone to become private trainer for one of the most powerful owners in the business, winners of the 1980 Kentucky Derby with Genuine Risk. During this period, Mott burnished a reputation as America's best trainer for turf horses.
"I won a lot of races on grass for them and my style probably does suit it a little bit," he says. "My style is not suited to winning two-year-old races going five furlongs on dirt, I admit that. Most of my two-year-olds need a race; I don't want them at their best first race. Why would I want them to be at their best first time they race? I'm trying to give them a career even if they're mediocre. Would I ever bet on one of my first-time starters? Yes if they're good, but I'd probably lose my money!" Such an outlook also explains why Mott has saddled relatively few runners in the Triple Crown races, in which he has endured a surprising lack of success, with Drosselmeyer his only winner.
The highlight of Mott's link with the Firestones came early in their relationship via turf champ Theatrical, the former Dermot Weld-trained five-year-old with whom he won six Grade 1s in 1987. "Two horses have probably really changed my life," he says. "The first was Theatrical, who was my first champion and my first Breeders' Cup winner. I bought my first home with the proceeds from him."
No prizes for naming the second life-changer. Cigar came to Mott thanks to his association with Theatrical, in whom owner Allen Paulson had a share. When Mott's private arrangement with the Firestones ended, he also won the Breeders' Cup Turf with Fraise, who carried the silks of Paulson's wife Madeleine.
As a result, the aeronautics magnate began to send Mott a few horses, among them Cigar, who had already undergone knee surgery when he was transferred from west coast-based Alex Hassinger at the beginning of his four-year-old campaign in 1994.
Asked to quantify Cigar's achievements, Mott is silent for a few seconds. "He was good," he says, misty-eyed. "He was really good. He was one of those horses that when he started winning he really had a presence. After he had won something like six in a row I said to my assistants, 'We all need to sit down and take a good look at this because something very special is happening here. This is a whole different deal.' "It was breathtaking really - just to be able to have that opportunity is a once-in-a-lifetime kinda thing. To have a horse like Cigar – I just never imagined it would happen to me."
Infertility problems meant Cigar was a failure at stud and he is now the star attraction at the Kentucky Horse Park. "The first couple of times I went to see him, I just broke down in tears," says Mott. "It was very emotional for me. I mean, this horse took me from Mobridge, South Dakota, to Dubai - to places we'd never seen. Everything I've ever had has been because of the horses - they've been pretty good to me."
In return, the kindness has been reciprocated by someone who has lost none of his zest for training over 40 years after he started out, despite worries the sport is losing some of its appeal to the public.
He explains: "Keeneland is always a good meet, Derby week is good, Saratoga is good, Del Mar is good – but other than that round the country you could shoot a shotgun off and you might not hit anybody."
Mott's enthusiasm, though, remains undimmed. "I do have a passion about what I do," he says. "I just love it – or I love the training in particular. Do I love putting a coat and tie on and going to the races? I'd rather take a beating most times - it's not my thing. I dress up out of respect for horse and owner but my thing is when you see me at the barn. That's what I enjoy. I love to watch the progression of young horses – it's fun."
Drosselmeyer has been retired, but with the immensely talented Royal Delta being readied for Dubai after a multi-million-dollar sale, the fun looks set to continue for a fair while yet.
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