Horse Work: Mott assistants prove point

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Ever run a horse? One you rubbed, groomed, walked, cared for like a family member? It’s work, real work, but the reward comes when your charge heads to the racetrack and performs the way she can.

Even if you haven’t, you know the feeling. Glee, joy, happiness, pride. It comes when something you’ve put your faith in lives up to the effort, proves worthy of the work, delivers in an arena that matters.

Saturday at Saratoga, Leana Willaford and Kristen Lindsay stood outside the winner’s circle and talked about Royal Delta, her mother Delta Princess, working for Bill Mott, the feeling of winning a Grade I with a horse in whom you’ve invested the last year of your life. Bill Mott’s assistants held the filly’s red Alabama saddle towel, the one with the big numeral 1 and the filly’s name in white letters, the one with the bits of dirt and sweat and hair on it.

And beamed.

“This makes up for a hundred days without winning a race,” said Willaford, Mott’s Belmont-based assistant who came north to see the Alabama. “It’s why we get up every day and go to work.”

Willaford has been getting up and going to work for Mott for 11 years. She’s seen major wins, major disappointments. She’s seen horses come and go. She’s seen some win big. She’s seen some not handle the mental pressure or the physical demands. She’s seen others develop into stars, still others not live up to the hype. Eleven years of early mornings, long afternoons, strong horses, weak horses, fast horses, slow horses, sick horses, healthy horses.

And sometimes, wild horses.

Back in 2005, Royal Delta’s dam Delta Princess ran in the Diana Stakes here for Mott and finished a dull sixth, but not before scattering the trainer, two assistants and a valet with some rodeo antics in the paddock. The old photos show a horse on its hind legs, stirring dust over by the saddling stalls, a trainer in harm’s way, two grooms on taught shanks.

“She’s a little easier than her mother,” Willaford said. “We’ve got those pictures pasted on our window. She was about half the size of this filly, but much more difficult. She was very talented, but a lot of work. Luckily, we won with the other half of the entry (Sand Springs).”

Still, Willaford and Saratoga assistant Lindsay (a Mott employee for seven years) remember Delta Princess and think of Royal Delta and the progress of a generation.

“She’s about twice the size of her mother,” said Willaford. “We spend a lot of time with her. She’s pretty straightforward. She’s been headstrong, but very classy. She knows what she wants, does what she wants.”

Lindsay remembered her first encounter with the (now) long, graceful dark bay daughter of Empire Maker about a year ago.

“She must have weighed 2,000 pounds,” she said. “Just a big, dopey thing. She was funny when she was young. Now she’s beautiful. You look at her now. That’s what a racehorse is supposed to look like.”

It didn’t happen overnight, something Willaford and Lindsay know well. They remember the hours, the work, the care. Anybody who works with horses does.

It takes a barn full of people to produce a racehorse. I remember Lonnie, Holly, George, Les, Sue, Fee (he was Iranian, or so he said), Bob, Ted, Tom, “Every Other Day” Ray, “Two Hour” Lou, Eileen the drag racer and a long list of others who worked at the farm or the racetrack.

We worked early and late, traveled to the races, went on breakfast runs between sets, ate Thanksgiving Dinner at the Laurel Park track kitchen. We cashed tickets, sometimes. We cried when they got hurt, every time. We checked legs, picked feet, dried heels, mucked stalls, wrestled with fans and extension cords, rode in the van, walked them, rubbed them, fed them, bathed them, gave them hay, oats, medicine, vitamins, sweet feed, carrots, beer sometimes, salt, love.

“This is the only job I’ve ever had on the racetrack,” Lindsay said. “You end up being a big family because of the work you do. We’re allies, kind of all in it together.”

Trainer included. Willaford and Lindsay paid credit to Mott’s work ethic when they talked about why they’ve lasted in their racetrack jobs. He’s more than a boss, though he’s the boss.

“He’s a consummate horseman,” said Willaford. “Every day, he goes in, he cares about the horses, he’s not just there. They’re number one. One thing I learned from Bill is to not ask anybody to do anything you aren’t ready to do yourself. And that man will walk in a stall, show you how to knock off a horse, pick their feet properly, whatever.”

Listening with a big smile, Lindsay added a more recent note, “He was sweeping the road – sweeping the road – the other morning.”

Because it mattered.