The full-brothers stand four stalls apart. Big, long, tall. Bone, scope, brawn. Present, alert, regal. Sharp features, blazes like a thick brush to a thin line, white rims around wild eyes.
Al Khali looks out over his screen in the second stall to the end of Bill Mott’s barn on the Oklahoma side. Five stalls to his left, past Benediction, Privet Hedge, My Miss Sophia and Seek Again stands his little brother, Japan, he looks out over his screen.
They look you dead in the eye, then they look past you, off in the distance, then they look back at you, then back in the distance. They twitch their ears every time the camera clicks. Al Khali nickers when a horse stops in front of him, banging his screen off the wooden sides. Japan pulls hay like a dog pulls on a bone, then grinds on the green stalks while staring into the distance.
Mott glides past on his paint pony.
“If we walked a bunch of horses around the shed and said pick out the full-brothers, you wouldn’t need to have the greatest eye to figure it out,” Mott said. “They have a lot of the same characteristics. They’re both studdish in the paddock. I’ve never seen anything like it. They’re long, they’re tall, they’re not particularly wide, they’re angular, both have a big, long head.”
Friday morning, Al Khali trained first. You can’t miss him. Long and low in the middle but tall and strong on either end, he saunters onto the track, swaggering like he won an Oscar. He stands, jogs back and gallops past, lighter than you would have believed. You shake your head, in awe yet again.
Japan goes to the Oklahoma track as well, the sun has started to come up. He’s lighter, leggier, easier on himself. He hasn’t filled out, won’t fill that frame for years. He bounces over the dirt, walks off the track on his own, walks the long way around Shug’s barn, takes a turn of the barn. He saunters too, but not with the stamp of his older brother.
Bred by Emory Hamilton, the sons of Medaglia d’Oro and Maya make graded stakes starts today at Saratoga. Japan, 3, tries to continue his ascent, aiming to win his third straight in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy while Al Khali, 9, tries to keep his career afloat, taking a crack at the Grade 2 Bowling Green, a race he won in 2010.
Mott has trained Al Khali since taking over from Todd Pletcher, back in 2009. Al Khali made his first three starts in Peru before returning to the U.S. to make five starts for Pletcher and WinStar Farm. Brous Stable and Wachtel Stable purchased him and sent him to Mott. That was 2010. He has shown up and gone to work in every turf stakes ever since. He’s won eight races, lost 31. A soldier.
Japan began his career with Mike Hushion before owner Barry Schwartz sent him to Mott this winter. Japan’s won two of three since, including the Easy Goer on Belmont Stakes Day. Mott thought grass, then didn’t after a 5-furlong breeze in 1:02 1/5 in May.
“He’s a little different, he’s got a different foot, that suits the dirt,” Mott said. “Naturally, after Al Khali, you think about grass for him. I worked him on the grass and he didn’t really work that great. I’ll tell you what, he works good on the dirt. He works like a good horse.”
Leaning on a wooden rail on the edge of the wash pad Friday morning, Mott gazed at Japan and looked ahead.
“You have to think at this time next year, he’ll fill out,” Mott said.
But, he’ll never look like Al Khali, will he?
“He’s like a cartoon horse,” Mott said, endearingly.
Think Peb meets Hanna Barbara.
Al Khali missed nearly two years of racing, from the 2013 Sword Dancer to an optional claimer at Belmont in May. Mott knows he’s near his curtain call.
“He enjoys his job, I don’t think he’d be any happier turned out somewhere or retired than he is right here at the racetrack. He loves training, the way he breezes, the way he gallops,” Mott said. “Maybe he’s lost a step on the racetrack in the afternoon but to watch him train, you’d never know it. He probably won’t run much more but we wanted to bring him back, he’s perfectly happy doing it.”
At the end of the morning, Mott sits behind his desk of his office, across the courtyard from his barn. He slides a pencil into his electric sharpener on his desk and starts to mark his training chart.
A sharp nicker sound wafts through the screen door.
Mott doesn’t even look up.
“There’s Al. We hear you Al. What are you doing, Al? He has a very distinguished nicker. He sees the tractor going around. I don’t think he’s even looking at that pony,” Mott said. “I walked in front of his stall yesterday, I’m standing directly in front of him and he’s not paying attention to me. He’s looking right over me, looking out over there somewhere.”
Just like a big brother.