Using the leeward side of the viewing stand that overlooks the Payson Park training track to brace himself against brisk winds and 53-degree temperatures, the horseman stood trackside beneath a high sky awaiting the final horse in his second set of the morning to come into view.
On foot or astride his pony, Bill Mott never takes his eyes off the prize.
Extending my hand, I gave my standard wiseguy greeting to anyone who hadn‘t returned a recent phone call. “You must have me on your pay-no-mind list.”
“I’ve been a little busy,” said the youngest trainer ever inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame, now moving away from the concrete windbreaker and ducking under the outside rail onto the Payson surface, stopwatch in right hand.
“Go Between?” After Mott nodded yes, what I left unsaid was that Garrett Gomez gave him a brilliant ride in the Sunshine Classic, and that 5-1 was a square price.
In the next instant Mott was gone. “Going back to the barn. I’ve got one more set to go out. See you over there,” he motioned, pointing in the direction of barn 3-B.
I climbed the steps of the viewing stand to get a better view of the deepish, one mile oval. I asked Shug McGaughey if the gloves he was wearing were for sale. He smiled to acknowledge the not so facetious question but clearly never entertained the notion.
Returning to the stand’s leeward side where I first encountered Mott, Nick Caras and Humberto Chavez, both of the New York division of Race Track Chaplaincy of America, were informing horsemen there would be a worship service at 7:30 p.m. at the dorms by the basketball court.
Moving 20 feet in our direction, Christophe Clement walked over, extended a greeting, smiled, and said: “This looks like a good place to be, a handicapper on one side and a chaplain on the other.”
A regular kidder that Clement.
Back at Barn 3-B, Mott was making sure that Court Vision--a strong-finish Fountain of Youth third and who runs next in the Wood Memorial a week from Saturday--was comfortable, that the blanket was comfy snug but not too tight. “I thought he ran good in the Fountain of Youth. He was just too far back at [for Gulfstream]. But if he wants to give us a reason to go to the Derby with a good chance, he needs to run a strong race in the Wood.”
Majestic Warrior, who runs in Saturday’s Florida Derby, ”is doing very well.” On its face that would be trainer speak, but from Mott it’s high praise. “He made a big move in [the Louisiana Derby], got something out of it, and came back good. The race took nothing out of him, didn’t set him back.”
There’s no added pressure on Mott or the horse even if Majestic Warrior was bred by George Steinbrenner, who retains a major interest in the colt. “He would love to be in the [Derby], but not just to be in it.
“When I ran Blue Burner, it was my choice. He was second in the Florida Derby and fourth in the Wood and thought he earned his chance. We’ll see where we’re at with [Majestic Warrior] on Saturday and go from there. I‘m still learning about him, still trying to figure him out.”
In the stall directly adjacent to Majestic Warrior’s is Z Humor, Mott’s third Derby hopeful, who runs next in the Illinois Derby, same day as the Wood. “His effort will determine his [Kentucky Derby] status. We need to see where he fits.”
When conjuring up Bill Mott, what comes to mind is a deliberate demeanor that doesn’t offer more than is asked, probably the South Dakota in him. His words are measured, as if carefully thought through the instant before speaking. He gives the impression of a man constantly playing a game of chess with himself.
“I’m sitting on some nice horses,” Mott admitted. “I’ve been excited all winter. You get up in the morning thinking about what you‘re going to do that day. You need to do it right, and you’ve got to do it right for everybody. You have to figure out the best way to get them there.”
Then he allowed himself this. “I’d just like to be on the lead at the eighth pole in the Derby.” Then he threw his head back, and laughed.