Bill Mott swung into his western saddle and ambled his way to the track to watch his last set gallop on the main track Tuesday morning. The sun was out, the rain loomed and all thoughts were on Opening Day Saratoga 2008.
Mott laughed at the absurdity of predicting what might happen. Defending his leading-trainer title, the prospects of his 2-year-olds, the condition of the oval – all out of any one man’s control.
“Oh, I don’t know. I wouldn’t even dare to guess,” Mott said. “I’d prefer not to think about (leading trainer). You do, but I think it works better when you don’t think about it. Timing is everything. If you fall in the right race with the right horse on the right racetrack, but it could all change when you wake up in the morning and see the weather forecast.”
As Mott explained how he’s won races with average horses and lost races with phenomenal horses at Saratoga, trainer Rick Violette walked over to the shoulder of Mott’s pony and joined in the racing round table.
“You’re exactly right,” Violette said. “Some very ordinary horses win here and then some of them are Grade I maiden races. You never know.”
And that’s why we’re here. With more than a stakes a day – there are four graded stakes on Saturday – this is as good as it gets. But don’t ask a trainer to tell you how it’s going to go.
“I’ve won with horses I wouldn’t have liked anywhere,” Mott said. “Sometimes the steam in the race doesn’t show and everybody’s staggering down to the wire and somebody’s got to win. It can happen. You take your best horse and end up in one of the Grade I maiden races at Saratoga and you might be fourth, and run a good race. You look back in two year’s time and say, ‘look what came out of that spot.’ It’s amazing.”
Last year Mott ended Todd Pletcher’s five year headlock on leading-trainer honors. Mott and Pletcher are the only two to earn the title in the last 10 years. You want unpredictability? Pletcher doesn’t run a single horse on Opening Day; Mott entered two horses – and he’ll only run one in the first 2-year-old maiden race of the meet. Gary Contessa plays in five races. Steve Asmussen appears in four. Tom Bush, Christophe Clement, Richard Dutrow, Mike Hushion, Leo O’Brien, Phil Serpe and Nick Zito go three deep.
Complementing the mainstays this meet are new shooters such as John Fahey III, Dave Carroll, Mike Maker, Bruce Brown and Tom Proctor. Some trainers are looking for titles, others just looking to survive the meet and maybe win a race or two.
Remember, it’s about the right races, the right horses, the right track, the right breaks.
“Last year, everything fell into place. You couldn’t have designed it any better. You didn’t design it, it just happened,” Mott said. “We’re certainly fortunate to have a group of nice horses, to have that opportunity, but you’ve still got to get lucky and everything has to fall into place.”
For trainers like Dave Carroll, who brought eight horses to Saratoga, it’s an opportunity to fly one wing-span closer to the sun. Originally, Carroll was coming to run Denis Of Cork in the Jim Dandy and figured he’d bring seven others to complete the mission. The Belmont Stakes runner-up hurt a hind ankle and rests at Churchill Downs. Carroll’s other option was Ellis Park, so he’s here, one toe in the water.
“It’s Saratoga. It’s the place to be. Walking around, I’m happy I’m here,” Carroll said. “Hopefully we can win a race or two, that would be great. Everybody’s here. Nobody’s at Ellis.”
Saratoga doesn’t offer any discounts. For a small trainer with a marginal stable, filling out the stall application for Saratoga amounts to a leap of faith, one to show your owners you belong and you’re ready to play at the top. You come with your best and hope for the best.
“You always want to put yourself against the best, sometimes you’re humbled and sometimes you’re successful, but you learn from it,” Carroll said, as he cooled off from galloping most of his string Tuesday morning. “I watch everybody here, but I feel like I belong here too. I’m not afraid of anybody. Just give me the horse. In this business, this guy’s a claiming trainer, this guy doesn’t run 2-year-olds, this guy . . . you want to be where you can do it all, and you’ve got to travel when you have a nice horse. I love it up here.”
Minutes after Carroll arranged for some freelance help and Mott rode off to accompany his set back to the barn, Mott’s go-to jockey Kent Desormeaux and his agent Mike Sellito conferred over their Saratoga strategy. The duo debated plans from the front of their golf cart: Should they go out of town here, should they stay put and focus on the riding title . . .
Obviously Desormeaux will hit the road to ride Big Brown in the Haskell at Monmouth but besides that he’s got one thing on his mind – avenging a one-win loss to Cornelio Velasquez (whose agent Richard DePass had already been around the backstretch like a paratrooper Sunday and Monday mornings). Last year, Desormeaux made up an eight-win deficit in the last week but fell just short of Velasquez.
Don’t remind him.
“I’m amped. Excited,” Desormeaux said. “This year is about vindication, I hope. Being eight-back the last week and coming into the last day all square and not being able to muster up one win – that hurt. That was a big pill to swallow. Hopefully we’ll be as lucky, get as much support as last year and things will go our way this year.”
Desormeaux will have plenty of company at the top of the board. Soon-to-be Hall of Famer Edgar Prado, perennial powerhouse John Velazquez, Belmont leader Eibar Coa and streaking Alan Garcia lead the talent pool. Garrett Gomez and Rafael Bejarano will ply their trade in California but Robby Albarado, Jamie Theriot, Elvis Trujillo and Richard Migliore (among others) will add to the Saratoga depth.
Desormeaux knows it’s tough sledding.
“We were excited coming into last year and we’re just as excited this year, but it’s Saratoga. We’ve established some better horses, with that being said, we have some traveling to do,” Desormeaux said. “I had a fantastic year last year but I’d sure like to win this title. I should have won on the horse Cornelio won on the last day, that was my second call. There were at least five re-rides I’d like to have back . . . shoulda, coulda, woulda. I knew them for a long time, then I had to let them go. We’ll try to erase them for good this year.”
Desormeaux wants to erase. Mott wants to duplicate. And Carroll just wants to play. It’s Saratoga – all aboard.