Bill Mott stood in the road outside his barn on the Oklahoma bend Wednesday morning and directed traffic. Making sure there were no cars, golf carts or horses, Mott asked for his paddock schoolers to make the walk, hoping to slip through a break in a relentless rain.
The stop-traffic Tacitus, Channel Maker, Golden Award and Elate strolled diagonally across the yard, through two green cones and stepped gingerly over a newly formed puddle on the edge of the grass.
“Look at those four,” the Hall of Famer said.
Mott walked past Round, the pony, looking over the ledge of his outside stall and headed for his compact Range Rover.
“When you get old enough to get social security, they let you drive over,” Mott said, turning onto Fifth Avenue.
Mott parked behind the saddling stalls and said hello to the security guard sitting under a dripping tree.
“How you doing?” Mott asked. “Need a raincoat?”
“I’m good,” the guard said. “I’m good.”
Mott walked to his trunk, pulled on a Brook Ledge jacket, just in case, walked into the paddock and waited for his brigade to make the long, meandering walk from his barn.
Small talk drifted all the way back to Mott’s early days with Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg.
“Every day you checked the horses, snap them up, muck four stalls, you can muck a stall in five minutes if you’re rolling. Rake it, lay it down. Leave it in the muck sacks in the shedrow. Get some hotwalker to empty the muck sacks and fill the water buckets. An extra guy might bust open the straw and shake it out,” Mott said. “And then start cleaning them up. Get their polos on, whatever they would need. When they were ready, you would gallop them, 10 a day. There were times when you would cool out two at a time around the shedrow.”
Funny how things change. Mott used to cool out two on his own at bygone tracks, now he’s got eight men and four horses walking to the paddock for their last schools before Travers Day stakes. Mott bedded down his first Saratoga string for Bertram and Diana Firestone in 1987. Mott wasn’t mucking anymore but he was still galloping. Long leg, full cross, neck bowed, head pulled to their chest – a style learned from Van Berg.
“We had old horses with some class but they had issues, you didn’t let them roll around there every day,” Mott said. “It wasn’t until New York when we started letting them do a little more, a little better horses.”
Way better. Four stars with 12 stakes wins, including four Grade 1, and $5.7 million, walked into the paddock, under a light rain. Tacitus came first, rider on his back and groom at his side.
Jimmy Jerkens, there for a schooler of his own, liked it.
“Whittingham style, huh?” Jerkens said, referring to Hall of Famer Charlie Whittingham.
“I’m afraid he’d blow up on the way home,” Mott said.
“We used to do that all the time,” Jerkens said.
“Your old man would do that?” Mott asked.
“Yeah,” Jerkens said.
“I just think you got a better shot at keeping them straight going home,” Mott said. “You bring them over and tease them and they want to blow up.”
As Mott talked, rain pounded.
“I didn’t know I was going to get caught up in this,” Mott said. “I was thinking of this afternoon, but it looks like it’s raining, I don’t want to school tomorrow. My guys would rather just get it done.”
Mott walked to where he saddles his afternoon runners, near the Paddock Bar and began an orchestration of nerves and power.
“Juan, go ahead and bring him in, line him up, you can bring him in the 12,” Mott said. “Big turn. Let him sniff the back of it if he wants to. If he’ll stand there, just let him stand there.”
Tacitus turned and stood, head up like a periscope, on trigger but composed.
“Bring her in and let her stand there if she will,” Mott said.
Elate strutted under the tent, made a big turn and stood, two stalls from Tacitus.
“Come on in,” Mott said.
Golden Award, the most subdued and quiet of the quartet, walked languidly and stood in stall 6 like a student hiding from the teacher’s question.
Channel Maker did the same, two stalls from Golden Award.
Mott took Elate’s shank and his assistants tightened the foam pad and girth around her.
Whinnies all around. A whistle. Pats on the neck. A couple of photographers hovered.
“If he’s anxious, come next door,” Mott said, over and over like a nervous twitch.
A car splashed down the road behind the stalls and Channel Maker sprung off his front legs, rearing and clattering his hocks into the back wall, chain shank taut and restrictive but effective.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Mott said. “Bring him down here, bring him down here.”
Channel Maker, a veteran of 26 starts, settled, walked out, almost sheepish.
“The old gelding…” Mott said.
Mott handed Elate back to her groom and checked the radar on his phone, waiting for a window of clearance. He checked with assistant Neil Poznansky. And waited.
“Why don’t you guys go ahead. Just do a half circle,” Mott said. “Keep him straight. OK. Good job, guys. Sorry it’s sprinkling.”
Four horses, eight men walked back to the barn and Mott headed to his car.
“They were good,” Mott said. “I’m glad to have it out of the way.”