Before the cheers, before the jeers, before the groans and before the boos, Bill Mott walked through the tunnel on the horse path before stopping on a spot where the rubber pavers meet the racetrack at Churchill Downs.
The Hall of Fame trainer found himself surrounded by a massive gathering of media, with writers inquiring about the outcome of the Kentucky Derby very much in doubt and TV cameras seeking the best angle.
Mott answered the questions while keeping his eyes fixed on the monster big screen high above the Churchill backstretch, the screen showing replays of what would be a controversial final quarter-mile of the 145th Kentucky Derby. He turned on occasion during the rapid-fire Q&A, to see who asked the question and give one of those looks that anyone ever on the receiving end would know. It’s a quizzical look from a non-perplexed man with few peers when it comes to horsemanship.
Unlike some of his peers, Mott doesn’t relish the type of spotlight that unfolded in the minutes after the Kentucky Derby but he also doesn’t – and didn’t on this day – shy from it the way others might if thrust into the situation. He handled it with the same calm professionalism that brought him to the Derby with Country House and Tacitus, colts he felt suited the spring classics as well as any member of their generation.
High above the spot where Mott and the media stood, stewards reviewed an incident near the top of the stretch that could lead to the first disqualification of the winner in America’s most famous horse race. The review, as the world knows now, involved Maximum Security and jockey Luis Saez veering to the right turning for home and impeding several rivals.
“I’ll say this, if it was a maiden-claimer on a weekday the winner would come down,” Mott said. “It’s not supposed to matter, the Kentucky Derby or whatever it is. There are a couple riders that nearly clipped heels and went down. I’m going to wait and let the stewards decide that. I know what I naturally would like to happen but I have no control over it at this point. I’m just a bystander as you are right now.
“Believe me there are over 100,000 people here and I know they don’t want to have to make that call. The stewards are probably wishing they didn’t have to make that decision right now, but it’s their duty to do the right thing and I hope they do.”
Country House, a son of Lookin At Lucky owned by the partnership of Maury Shields, Guinness McFadden and LNJ Foxwoods, finished 1 3/4 lengths behind Maximum Security in second for Mott and jockey Flavien Prat. Country House was largely unaffected by Maximum Security failing to keep a straight path, but War Of Will, Long Range Toddy and others were not so fortunate.
“I’m proud of my horses, I was second and fourth, they ran well,” Mott said. “Country House ran a great race. It’s up to the stewards now. I think the stewards will take a good look at it and decide … When you’re in racing you get both sides … sometimes it works out for you and sometimes it works against you. You just never know for sure … Makes for an interesting day.”
Things got a lot more interesting a few seconds after Mott deadpanned those last five words, when Maximum Security’s 7 was taken down and Country House’s 20 went up. Kentucky Derby 145 would be the first with a disqualification for an incident on the track and Maximum Security would join Dancer’s Image, taken down in 1968 three days after the race for a positive drug test.
The boos from those in the saturated crowd of 150,729 provided a backdrop to a surreal sequence of events that saw the connections of Maximum Security, owners Gary and Mary West, trainer Jason Servis, Saez and the horse himself, depart from the space on the turf course where they awaited the stewards’ ruling. They crossed paths with the adjudged winning connections while Country House, walking on the track during the inquiry with his groom Angel Barajas, exercise rider Marianne Scherer, Mott’s son and assistant Riley and Mott’s Kentucky-based assistant Kenny McCarthy, made his way to the coveted Derby winner’s circle.
Mott beamed from the stand a few minutes later, introduced as a Kentucky Derby winner for the first time in his Hall of Fame career. He’d attempted to win the race on six prior occasions with eight horses. The best finish came last year when Hofburg finished seventh behind eventual Triple Crown winner Justify on a muddy track very similar to Saturday.
Country House and Mott’s other Derby runner, Wood Memorial winner and ultimate third-place finisher Tacitus, handled the off going well after impressing onlookers during morning training in the weeks leading up to the race. The two came out together during the designated Derby and Oaks training period, accompanied by Mott and McCarthy on their ponies.
Mott loved what he saw in Country House, a multi-generation homebred of the late Jerry Shields who came into the Derby with a maiden win and three decent efforts in graded preps for the main event.
“A week ago … I was sitting on the pony, and I was talking to Wayne Lukas and I said, ‘Man, I wish they would run this thing tomorrow,’ ” Mott said. “You get that feeling when things are going really well, really well, and you haven’t had any hiccups or bumps in the road. It seemed like, man, I just want it to get here.
“Then I woke up this morning and I said, ‘Oh, shit. This is here.’ You know what I mean? It’s finally here and, all of a sudden, it just snuck up on us … And it’s happened so many times before when you’re getting ready for a big race.”
Big races are synonymous with Mott, the winner of nearly 5,000 overall and dozens of Grade 1s in his career. He trained the legendary Cigar to win 16 consecutive races, including the 1995 Breeders’ Cup Classic, and the winners of scores of major stakes from coast to coast with Theatrical, Royal Delta, Paradise Creek, Escena, Ajina, Fraise, Geri, Wekiva Springs, Ron The Greek, Flat Out. Mott owned an American classic victory, that coming with Drosselmeyer in the 2010 Belmont Stakes.
The Derby had eluded him since he sent out his first starter in the race, Taylor’s Special, in 1984. And it nearly eluded him again.
Country House, the second longest-priced horse in the Derby field and now the second highest payout in the race’s history at $132.40, almost didn’t make it Louisville for the first Saturday in May.
The chestnut colt lost his two starts as a 2-year-old, a 1 1/16-mile maiden on the grass at Belmont Park and a 1-mile maiden at Aqueduct, before going with the majority of Mott’s stable for the winter at Payson Park. He breezed three times at Payson before his 2019 debut, which he won going two turns for the first time on the main track in a 1 1/16-mile maiden race at Gulfstream Park Jan. 17.
The impressive victory – ironically under Luis Saez for the first time – got a lot of attention and Mott warned the colts’ co-owners of what to expect next.
“I called Guinness after he crossed the finish line and I said, ‘Your phone is going to be ringing off the hook,’ ” Mott said. “I think he was traveling at the time. And so we had a conversation about it. I think his phone was ringing off the hook, which he told me about later.”
LNJ Foxwoods, the family stable name for Larry and Nancy Roth and their daughter Jaime Roth, came on as a partner after the maiden win. The partnership, which Jaime Roth said happened “very organically,” came about through McFadden’s longtime professional and personal relationship with LNJ’s primary agents, Alex Solis II and Jason Litt.
A month after his maiden win Country House finished second to War Of Will, considered one of if not the leading contender for the Derby at that time, in the Grade 2 Risen Star at Fair Grounds. A month after that he finished fourth behind By My Standards, Spinoff and Sueno in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby.
Less than a month from the Kentucky Derby, Country House was on the outside of the field looking in with 30 points and tied for 21st on the standings.
Mott, never one to jam a square peg into a round hole, brought Country House back on three weeks’ rest and pointed to the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby in search of the needed points to guarantee a spot in the field. He finished third behind Omaha Beach and Improbable, earned 20 points and angled into the field in 16th position with 50 points.
“I really felt he was a horse that probably deserved to run in the Kentucky Derby,” Mott said. “I saw him that way early on the winter, after we saw him break his maiden. I thought he was well‑suited to the mile-and-a-quarter.
“I said all along, ‘this is a big, tough horse.’ And I said it’s not the style now to go back in three weeks or two weeks or whatever. But I said this horse can do it. He’s just big and tough and durable, eats the bottom out of (his feed tub). He’s a dream for a horse trainer because he’s just, he’s like one they trained in the old days. You know what I mean? You used to see these horses run more often.”
Mott, who treats his horses as individuals and never puts them in a “program,” credited the many individuals involved in bringing Country House to the races and his staff for his Derby success. He also credited his “good, solid pedigree.”
Mott knows the family. He trains Country House’s half brother, stakes winner and $154,570-earner Mitchell Road for McFadden and Shields, watched his dam Quake Lake compete in the Northeast for Graham Motion and competed in graded stakes against his second dam, the Allen Jerkens-trained Shooting Party. Country House’s third dam, the Jade Hunter mare Ayanka, was bred by one of Mott’s longtime clients, the late Allen Paulson.
Country House shipped from Hot Springs to Louisville shortly after the Arkansas Derby and Mott breezed the colt once at Churchill before the Derby.
The 5-furlong workout April 28 became the buzz of the backside when Country House, breezing in company with Tacitus, wound up breezing in company with Mike Trombetta’s Derby entrant Win Win Win and his workmate Souper Company. The quartet came into the stretch together and some members of the press called it a “mini Derby.”
Mott didn’t make too much of it, mentioning that it happens from time to time during normal training and praising the riders perhaps with a bit of foreshadowing.
“All the riders did a really good job and I really have to commend all of them,” he said. “It’s not going to hurt them and they better get used to (traffic) if they’re not already or they’ll get a surprise on Derby Day. It’s pretty crowded out there.”
The Derby went smooth in the early stages, despite a 19-horse large field reduced by the scratches of morning-line favorite Omaha Beach and Haikal with Bodexpress drawing in off the also-eligible list.
Maximum Security battled with Bodexpress, Long Range Toddy and Blue Grass Stakes winner Vekoma with War Of Will and Spinoff right behind past the finish post the first time. Maximum Security led through a quarter in :22.31 and half in :46.62 and raced just ahead of Long Range Todd and Bodexpress entering the backstretch.
Tyler Gaffalione took a tight hold of War Of Will just behind the leader up the back with several contenders and longshots racing in a pack just behind. Improbable, Country House, Code Of Honor, Tax, Roadster, Win Win Win, By My Standards and Tacitus were part of that group.
Past 6 furlongs in 1:12.50, Saez stayed quiet on Maximum Security around the far turn. They held a 1-length lead midway around the turn while Gaffalione angled War Of Will off the inside to take their run. Maximum Security took a hard right between the three-eighths and quarter poles, nearly tangling with War Of Will, pushing that rival out and into Long Range Toddy. Widest of that group, Country House was floated out a few paths in the process. The incident opened a huge hole on the inside, and John Velazquez sent Code Of Honor through while Saez corrected Maximum Security approaching the quarter pole. Maximum Security rebroke past the three-sixteenths pole as Code Of Honor failed to keep up, War Of Will started to tire and Country House loomed a threat four off the fence.
Maximum Security fought back and responded to a few hard cracks from Saez’s right hand while drifting a bit again and finished clear of Country House. Code Of Honor held third with Tacitus rallying late for fourth. War Of Will ultimately finished eighth and Long Range Toddy was 17th. The final time was 2:03.93.
Jon Court, the rider of Long Range Toddy, and Prat lodged objections, alleging interference by Maximum Security. Stewards deliberated for 22 minutes, adding some drama to an already hyped renewal of the Derby run in the rain for the third straight year. The decision came just after Mott was asked by one of the reporters in the scrum, “How agonizing is this for you?”
“Well, you know …” Mott said just before the numbers were changed and word of the disqualification came from Travis Stone up in the announcer’s booth.
About an hour later Mott met with many of the same members of the press in the post-race interview room. Flanked by Prat, McFadden, Shields, Jaime Roth and Solis, the Hall of Famer called the win “bittersweet” in his opening remarks and offered solace to the disqualified connections.
“I would be lying if I said it was any different,” Mott said. “You always want to win with a clean trip and have everybody recognize the horse as the very good horse and for the great athlete that he is. I think, due to the disqualification, probably some of that is diminished. But this is horse racing.
“There were two horses in the race that lost all chance to win a Kentucky Derby, and they were in position at the time to hit the board. And people bet on these races. There’s millions of dollars that are bet. And there are some people that bet on the two horses that got bothered, and they had no chance to get a placing.”
And one horse – only one horse – can be the Derby winner.