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Country House’s Trainer Can’t Quite Embrace His Kentucky Derby Win

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — You want to see horse heaven? Then slip into the Oklahoma Training Track here early one morning and watch how Bill Mott treats his horses. His hands go head-to-toe on each of them gingerly, as if he were reading the Braille version of a sacred text.

His staff members go about their business as if they were in church — purposeful and reverent. Decibels never rise above the level of a rake pulling fresh hay, a sponge dipping into a bucket or the soft rhythm of hooves hitting dirt from horses winding down their workouts.

As you enter Mott’s barn at Saratoga Race Course, don’t look for the trophies from the scores of prestigious races that Mott’s horses have won around the world. There is nothing here to suggest that in 1998 he became the youngest trainer ever inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

No sign of the great Cigar, either, the most significant of the many champions he trained.

And, most glaringly, not a scintilla of evidence that Country House, trained by Mott, won the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby in May.

“We’re not much into that,” Mott said when asked about the Derby placard that most winning trainers hang on their barn.

Don’t ask to see Country House, either. He is in Kentucky being, well, a horse. More on that later.

Three months after one of the most stunning scenes in the history of America’s favorite horse race, Mott remains unsettled about his first Derby score.

One moment he was high-fiving with his son Riley, proud that the long-shot Country House had finished second and that another of their horses, Tacitus, had run fourth. Twenty-two agonizing minutes later, Mott was tickled and tormented all at once when Maximum Security — the colt that crossed the finish line first — was disqualified for interference after jumping a puddle in the stretch, nearly knocking over a couple of his rivals.

ImageCreditChristian Hansen for The New York Times

Mott feels for the three racing officials who had to make that decision, but he echoes what he said on national television while they were still deliberating.

“The stewards didn’t want to take a horse down in the Derby — it’s absolutely the last thing they wanted to be faced with,” he said. “But it was a flagrant foul, a no-brainer on any other day at any other racetrack.”

Mott, 66, is a plain-spoken South Dakota native. In his office here on a recent morning, his demeanor toggled between troubled and amused by his strange good fortune on Derby Day. Yes, he knows the win came with an asterisk.

“It was good, it was great, but as far as how I felt about it: We won through disqualification,” he said. “I’d rather win by photo by a nose or by five lengths or anything — finishing in front would have been much better for me.”

At the same time, Mott believes in the racing gods and that there are many days when the best horse does not win. He concedes that Country House was not going to catch Maximum Security, regardless of the interference.

Mott has yet to have a conversation with Country House’s rider in the Derby, Flavien Prat, about why he decided to file an objection.

“He is based in California and he hasn’t been around,” Mott said of Prat, a young French jockey whom he rarely puts on his horses.

When asked if Country House had the flashy pedigree to attract millions as a stallion prospect, Mott paused a full beat.

“He does now,” he said with a smile.

Mott has won more than 4,930 races and earned more than $280 million in purses as well as a reputation for being half-horse, because of his ability to harvest every bit of talent a horse possesses. His horses are also handled cautiously for clients that have often been with him for 40 years.

When he first started training Country House, Mott saw a big, strong horse that was not particularly fast or interested in running.

“He was not one of those horses that wow you,” he said.

Last October, he tried Country House on the turf, partly because he had grass in his pedigree and partly because the race was a mile and a sixteenth and Mott believed the big colt needed a lot of ground. He finished ninth.

ImageCreditRichard Beaven for The New York Times

“But the light bulb went on for him,” Mott said. “Afterward, he was a different horse in the mornings.”

Back to the dirt he went, finishing second at Aqueduct and then winning his first race in January at Gulfstream Park in Florida. Then, Mott shipped Country House to New Orleans, followed by Arkansas, where the colt earned checks, finishing second in the Risen Star Stakes and third in the Arkansas Derby.

The star in Mott’s barn was Tacitus, but Country House had earned a place in the Derby. Bettors were not impressed and sent him off at 65-1.

Mott was as surprised as Country House’s backers when the big colt thundered down the stretch to finish a length and three quarters behind Maximum Security.

The rest is history, the twisted, tortured kind.

Mott bounced out of it in better shape than Country House — at least for now.

The big colt came down with an infection two days after the Derby and has not run since. He spent the following week in a clinic in Kentucky before being given a clean bill of health. It was too late for the Preakness or the Belmont Stakes.

Mott had Country House jog a couple of mornings at Churchill Downs. He brought him to Saratoga, but didn’t like what his hands felt or his eyes saw.

“He wasn’t moving right,” said Mott. “He was just not happy.”

So Country House was sent back to the Kentucky farm where he was raised to convalesce, to get his mind right and mostly to be a horse. Mott plans to resume training him in October, hoping for a 2020 campaign.

If Country House still does not want to run, he will be retired, and Mott will continue his pursuit of a second (or first?) Derby.

He is at peace, sort of, with what happened on the first Saturday in May.

“My horse ran well and deserved to be second,” he said, pausing to choose his words carefully. “We were the beneficiary of a very flagrant foul. We were in the right place at the right time, and that’s what it amounted to.”


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