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Riding High : After Mott Put Cigar on the Dirt, Cigar Put Mott on the Eclipse Award for Trainers

August 09, 1996|BILL CHRISTINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DEL MAR, Calif. — In the summer of 1975, trainer Jack Van Berg was trying to win the Omaha Gold Cup at Ak-Sar-Ben with Gray Bar. The horse to beat was Master Derby, who had won the Preakness that year.

Final preparations called for Van Berg's young exercise rider to gallop Gray Bar two miles in what horsemen call two-minute licks--brisk gallops at two minutes a mile. The rider came back to Van Berg after circling the Nebraska track twice.

"Now," the gruff Van Berg said to 22-year-old Bill Mott, "I want you to do what I told you to do. Take him around again for another mile."

Mott returned a mile later, but he still hadn't done it right.

"Now," Van Berg said, "go breeze him a half [mile]. We got to get this horse ready for Saturday."

Gray Bar won the Gold Cup, and Mott, only a few years removed from the bush tracks of his native South Dakota, had learned a valuable lesson in horsemanship from a future Hall of Fame trainer.

The son of a veterinarian, Mott was on his first horse when he was 5 and as a teenager would be sent out in sub-zero weather, in his father's stead, to tend to ailing cattle. From those experiences, he knew he'd never be a vet, but he also knew early on that he might make a living training horses. And what a living it has become. For more than six years, Mott was the private trainer for Bert and Diana Firestone, at a reported salary of $450,000 a year, and last year, training mainly for Allen and Madeleine Paulson, he earned an estimated $1.7 million--based on 10% of the purses his horses earned--and won his first training Eclipse Award while guiding Cigar to horse-of-the-year honors.

Mott, 43, will be in the spotlight again Saturday, when Allen Paulson's Cigar tries to win the $1-million Pacific Classic and extend his streak to 17 races, which would surpass the 16 in a row of Citation nearly half a century ago.

"He's as good a trainer as there is in the country," Van Berg said. Mott left Van Berg in 1978, after three years, and started his own stable. Park Jefferson, Fort Pierre, Aberdeen and Mitchell tracks turned into Churchill Downs, Arlington Park, Belmont Park and Gulfstream Park.

An uneasy partnership between Allen Paulson and Bert Firestone in Theatrical, the 1987 male champion, introduced the Paulsons to Mott's skills. In 1992, at Gulfstream, Mott won the Breeders' Cup Turf with Fraise, who raced for Madeleine Paulson.

"Through Theatrical, we became acquainted with Bill," Allen Paulson said. "Madeleine liked him too, and she was very instrumental in him getting more of our horses."

After Cigar had won only two of nine starts in California in 1993 for Alex Hassinger Jr., the Paulsons' principal West Coast trainer, he underwent surgery for a chipped knee and was sent to Mott in New York, where he was treated for an ulcer.

Mott waited until July 1994 before he ran Cigar, concentrating on grass races as Hassinger had done in California. Cigar ran just as ineffectively at Belmont and Saratoga as he had at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park, gaining a piece of a purse here and there, but not winning.

After four consecutive losses, Mott, noting that Cigar trained well on the main track in the mornings, put him on dirt. Running on dirt for only the third time, and for the first time in a year and a half, Cigar won an allowance race at Aqueduct on Oct. 28, 1994. He hasn't lost since.

Cigar was a horse with problems when Mott took him on, and it does not surprise peers of the bespectacled, 5-foot-8 trainer that he was the right man for a recovery program and a subsequent campaign that has required high maintenance.

"He's as thorough as they come with a horse," Van Berg said. "We had a lot of horses when he worked for me. We bought a lot of them cheap, and we were buying other trainers' problems a lot of the time. Bill was dedicated and was a good listener. The kind of horses I had, you had to be checking their legs all the time. That's what I did, and Bill learned from that. Because of that, he was bound to go on to become a solid leg man."

In case anyone doubted how complete a horsemen Mott had become, there was an impromptu demonstration at Cigar's barn at Gulfstream Park on the afternoon of Feb. 22. Cigar had suffered a stone bruise earlier in the week, an injury that knocked him out of the Santa Anita Handicap. There was still going to be a push to run in a later race on the schedule, the $4-million Dubai World Cup in about a month, and with time running short and a blacksmith not immediately at hand, Mott put on a blue farrier's apron, got down on the ground in Cigar's stall and went to work.

He worked in that position for about 30 minutes. Using a farrier's knife, he removed the shoe on Cigar's right front foot, found the problem on the inside quarter of the horse's hoof and opened the abscess to allow it to drain.

To get Cigar ready for the successful excursion to Dubai, Mott said that he crammed a month of training into less than two weeks, a testimonial to both the horse and the horseman.

"I probably shouldn't say this, because Wayne Lukas and Nick Zito are good friends of mine," said John Nerud, a Hall of Fame trainer who developed 1968 horse of the year, Dr. Fager, "but Bill Mott is the best horse trainer in the United States today. And the Paulsons are darn lucky to have him."

Horse Racing Notes

Cigar, flown to Ontario airport from Albany, N.Y., received a police escort for the 100-mile van ride to Del Mar and arrived at noon Thursday. He will be stabled at trainer Bill Shoemaker's barn. . . . Jerry Bailey, who has been Cigar's jockey for all but the first start in the 16-race winning streak, has never ridden at Del Mar. Bailey has three mounts in early races on Saturday's card. "I'll be ready," Bailey said. "I'll do my homework and I'll know the track. I had never ridden in Dubai before, either."

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