By Andrew Champagne
Some trainers start their careers with dreams of winning a garland of roses, or a gigantic trophy.
Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott’s first big prizes, though, were substantially smaller.
“When I was 15, I got my first horse to train, which my father purchased for $320,” Mott recalled. “I put the horse in training. We ran her at a small fair meet in South Dakota, and she dead-heated for the win the first time I ever ran her.”
“The purse was $500, and we had to split 60% down the middle. I also won a blanket and a cooler. Because it was a dead heat, we flipped a coin.”
Mott still has the blanket and cooler from that race, and over the past 50 years, he’s added plenty of other pieces of hardware to his ever-growing trophy case. His career is one built on simple values instilled in him by some of the top horsemen in the Midwest during the 1970s, a group that included Keith Asmussen, Bob Irwin, and Hall of Fame conditioner Jack Van Berg.
“The major lesson I learned is, just show up and work,” Mott said. “The Asmussens were a hard-working family, and of course you can see what they’ve produced. Van Berg was the same. You worked hard, and you were a part of everything that went on. If you were interested, you were going to learn something.”
After several years of honing his craft as an assistant, Mott went out on his own in 1978. When asked about obstacles he had to overcome as a new head trainer, he was quick to thank Van Berg and an assortment of owners that helped him get off on the right foot.
“Jack had given me a big opportunity, and I had owners that came to me,” Mott explained. “I didn’t go out and hustle any horses or try to recruit anyone. Everything just fell into place. I showed up for work and things kept happening. My phone was ringing, and people were wanting to send me horses.”
Less than 10 years later, a son of Nureyev found his way into Mott’s barn thanks to owner Allen Paulson, and he would help shine a light on his conditioner’s world-class talents. His name was Theatrical, and while he had won several stakes races in Europe, it wasn’t until he came to the United States that he achieved his greatest success.
Theatrical won seven of nine races in 1987, including that year’s Breeders’ Cup Turf at Hollywood Park. In total, his campaign included six Grade 1 victories, and he was crowned as that year’s Champion Grass Horse.
“Theatrical was my first champion, my first Breeders’ Cup winner,” Mott said. “He let everyone know that I could train a good horse, that I could train a Grade 1 winner, that I could train a champion. Theatrical being owned by Allen Paulson is the reason I got Cigar.”
Six and a half years after Theatrical walked off the racetrack for the final time, Cigar was transferred to Mott’s care. He had started his career in California for trainer Alex Hassinger, but was sent east at the recommendation of Dr. Steve Allday following double knee surgery.
“I remember getting on him when we took him to Belmont,” Mott recalled. “One morning, we went to the training track. I galloped him, and I remember going back to the barn and just raving about this horse. The adrenaline had kicked in, and I was spouting off. I said, ‘this horse is like a machine.’
“I’d been on a lot of good horses, and I know what most good horses feel like. There’s a difference. You can sometimes feel that special horse underneath you. He was one of those.”
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