Bill Mott bounded along the top row of box seats as fans and friends yelled Happy Birthday to the newly turned 64-year-old Hall of Famer.
“What about that?” Mott said. “He came storming.”
Making his dirt debut, Good Samaritan had come storming to upset Saturday’s Grade 2 Jim Dandy, obliterating the Derby-Preakness grudge match of Always Dreaming and Cloud Computing and torpedoing a spastic 3-year-old division that’s desperate for a leader.
Mott met WinStar Farm’s Elliott Walden at the top step of the stairs to the winner’s circle.
Mott yelled, “Elliott…” and the two comrades high-fived.
“Told you,” Walden said. “Told you.”
“You were right,” Mott said.
Everybody was right about trying the dirt with Good Samaritan. Owned by WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, SF Racing Group and Head of Plains Partners, Good Samaritan earned his third career win and second Grade 2 stakes score with a last-to-first rally under Joel Rosario.
Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming shot from the inside post to secure the lead in a matter of strides. The Preakness winner Cloud Computing lapped on his right before Javier Castellano eased into Always Dreaming’s slipstream as Giuseppe The Great and Pavel volleyed for third and fourth. Rosario glanced to his left twice and guided Good Samaritan to the rail like he was dropping an anvil off a ledge. Always Dreaming loped through the first quarter-mile in :24.13 and a half in :48.53, opening up 3 lengths on Cloud Computing, who led Pavel and Giuseppe The Great while Good Samaritan looked like he was on a morning gallop, nearly 15 lengths off the lead.
“He was getting over the dirt nicely, I knew that right away, but they got away from me,” Rosario said. “He was happy where he was, just let him play his game. I knew he was going to put the same run he does on the turf.”
Always Dreaming’s commanding lead slipped away quicker than a Union Avenue parking space as Cloud Computing and Pavel ratcheted up the pressure. In the middle of the turn, Always Dreaming, Cloud Computing and Pavel reached even terms as Giuseppe The Great slipped 4 lengths back and Good Samaritan stayed in touch but was far from menacing. Passing the quarter pole, John Velazquez implored Always Dreaming from the rail, Castellano rousted Cloud Computing and Mario Gutierrez on Pavel, making his second career start, began to think big from the outside.
Turning into the stretch after 6 furlongs in 1:13.27, Always Dreaming, Cloud Computing and Pavel churned in a line, they weren’t getting up from their barstools, Giuseppe The Great made up ground four wide and Good Samaritan swooped five wide, gaining ground, impulsion and momentum with every stride. By the eighth pole, it was over as Good Samaritan and a stone-still Rosario rolled past his spent rivals. Rosario changed his hold, shook the reins, flicked his whip out of idleness before saluting Good Samaritan with three gentle pats on his right shoulder. Good Samaritan, ears pricked, finished 9 furlongs in 1:50.69.
“I couldn’t be more proud of him,” Rosario said. “He loves to run. He’s so easy to ride, just let him be happy, and he puts in that run every time.”
The first six times, on the turf, that run produced two wins, two seconds, a third and a fourth – he was deliberate. In the seventh, on the dirt – he was dominant.
Good Samaritan won his debut on the turf here last summer, won the Grade 2 Summer Stakes on the turf at Woodbine in his next start and finished third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf in November.
A switch to dirt was contemplated all the way back then.
“We cross-entered him in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile,” Walden said. “Harlan’s Holiday out of a Pulpit mare, we tried him on the turf originally because it was a mile race, then he did well, it’s hard to pull up, I wish now I ran him in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, it’s hard to come from behind like that on the turf.”
Mott convinced Walden to stick to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, which Mott still thinks he could have won with a clean trip into the first turn.
“I talked Elliott out of it, I was a little bit leery about the California dirt track being speed favoring,” Mott said. “I told Elliott, I’ll run him in the Breeders’ Cup and then run him back in the Remsen, if he was doing well. As it turned out, he needed some time so we couldn’t do it.”
With an extended break, the Triple Crown was out and Mott decided to stick to the turf, with the Belmont Derby’s $1.2 million purse as the dangling carrot. Good Samaritan finished second in the American Turf May 6, second in the Pennine Ridge June 3 and fourth in the Belmont Derby July 8. After the Belmont Derby, Walden turned up the pressure.
“As soon as the Belmont Derby was over, Elliott said we’ve got to try him on the dirt,” Mott said.
Walden wanted Good Samaritan to make his dirt debut in the Travers and Yoshida, fifth in the Belmont Derby, to make his dirt debut in the Jim Dandy. In Mott’s Saratoga tack room Monday morning, Mott and Walden finalized a plan. Mott lobbied to keep Yoshida on the turf, he won that, he’ll start in the Hall of Fame Stakes August 4. While thinking about the Jim Dandy or the Travers for Good Samaritan, Mott hit the sooner-rather-than-later button.
“Elliott wanted to wait for the Travers, we discussed it and I said, ‘What the hell, if we’re going to do it, let’s go ahead and do it now.’ Coming off three weeks rest but he was doing well, he worked fine, there’s a lot of speed, let’s go ahead and do it now,’ ” Mott said. “The majority of the credit to move him to the dirt goes to Elliott Walden. He kind of wanted to wait for the Travers and I might have encouraged him to go a little bit sooner and go to this race.”
Asked if he would have made the move without Walden’s pressure, Mott hesitated and contemplated while riding the escalator up to the second floor to watch Saturday’s 11th race.
“That’s a good question. You try to listen to logic. He’s helped me make some good decisions in the past, he’s helped me win a Belmont, helped me win a Breeders’ Cup Classic, both with Drosselmeyer,” Mott said. “He’s given me a good nudge at some very critical times. Put it this way, I think we work well together. Sometimes he has to beat me with a stick to get me to listen, he does it, and frankly, I appreciate it and I value our relationship and our friendship that we can haggle back and forth and still get it done.”
Mott watched his two fillies finish off the board in the finale, walked down the stairs, still accepting birthday wishes and paused at the bottom of the stairs.
“I’ve won the Jim Dandy a couple of times,” Mott said. “I’ve never won the Travers.”
Told he had four weeks, Mott asked, “What, to figure out how?”
He’s never been closer.