Mott barn lining up contenders for Derby and Oaks
by Keith McCalmont
Tacitus home and training at Belmont Park
Frank's Rockette in fine fettle for Purple Martin
Riley Mott is not one for stall rest. The world-traveling assistant trainer is currently riding out the remainder of a travel-imposed quarantine in Florida after returning from Dubai with last year's Grade 2 Wood Memorial winner Tacitus.
"For now, I'm home with my fiancé and the dog," said Mott, who had been overseas since saddling Tacitus to a fifth-place finish in the inaugural Saudi Cup in February for his father, Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott. "I've been to Dubai eight times now and also over to England for Ascot a few times. I've been to Woodbine a number of times. I get to travel and meet people and learn how to manage horses for world-class races. It's something not a lot of people get to do and I feel very fortunate for that."
Juddmonte Farms' homebred Tacitus, the striking gray son of Tapit out of the Eclipse Award-winning mare Close Hatches, was among the favorites for the Group 1 Dubai World Cup, which was slated for last Saturday until canceled. The 4-year-old colt is now back at Belmont Park after clearing quarantine in Newark, New Jersey.
"He shipped well and he's in good health. He's been to the track and galloped," said Mott. "We have a big dance card lined up for him if the races continue on."
With live racing in New York currently on hiatus due to complications of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Tacitus is one of many top older horses in limbo with the national stakes calendar in flux.
Tacitus was elevated to third last year in the Kentucky Derby which was awarded to the Bill Mott-trained Country House, and the classy colt went on to finish second in the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes as well as the Grade 2 Jim Dandy and Grade 1 Travers at Saratoga. Tacitus completed a lucrative sophomore season, in which he banked in excess of $1.6-million, with a third in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup in September at Belmont Park.
"He came out of the Saudi race fantastic and we were eager to run in Dubai. We thought he was sitting on a really big race," said the 28-year-old Mott. "He's a little stronger and tougher mentally. All the intangibles you'd want to see in the progression from two to three to four are there.
"If we're lucky enough to race this spring and summer, he'll be competitive in some of the top handicap races," added Mott. "You'd like to see him in races at Saratoga like the Woodward and the Whitney and then the Jockey Club Gold Cup again. And, of course, the Breeders' Cup is always the long-term goal. It's an anomaly of a year, so you have to take it as it comes."
While Tacitus plays the waiting game, the Mott barn will have a strong contender in Frank's Rockette in Saturday's $100,000 Purple Martin, a six-furlong sprint for sophomore fillies from Oaklawn Park.
A bay daughter of Into Mischief, Frank's Rockette enters the Purple Martin from a dominating seven-length score in the Any Limit at Gulfstream Park. The talented filly was the runner-up in a trio of graded stakes on the NYRA circuit last season including the Grade 2 Adirondack and Grade 1 Spinaway at Saratoga, as well as the Grade 1 Frizette at Belmont Park.
Mott said Frank's Rockette has always shown ability.
"When she sprinted first time out she won very impressively. We always had the inclination she was more of a one-turn type," said Mott. "We stretched her out in the Frizette and she ran a very good second to a nice filly in Wicked Whisper."
A resident of North Little Rock, Arkansas, owner Frank Fletcher boasts a strong string of horses, many of which are named after his dog, Rocket.
"Her owner is a big figure in the state there. He's an Arkansas guy and he loves to run his horses at Oaklawn," said Mott. "She was twice Grade 1-placed as a 2-year-old and last time we shortened her up at Gulfstream, which we thought would be her bread and butter, and she won in 1:09 and 2 under wraps. The numbers came back well."
The Purple Martin will headline Saturday's edition of America's Day at the Races, which is produced by NYRA in partnership with FOX Sports, as part of 11 hours of weekend coverage on FS1/FS2.
"It's a salty field so she has her work cut out for her," said Mott. "Whoever wins this race will be a pretty strong figure for those one-turn races for 3-year-old fillies the rest of the year."
A number of prominent Mott-trained horses of late have progressed through New York and the Aqueduct fall and winter meets, including last year's Kentucky Derby winner Country House, who was second in a December 2018 maiden tilt at the Big A ahead of graduating in January 2019 at Gulfstream.
Country House went on to finish second in the Grade 2 Risen Star and fourth in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby, both at Fair Grounds, before completing the trifecta in the Arkansas Derby ahead of his Derby coup for owners Mrs. J.V. Shields (also his breeder), E.J.M McFadden, Jr. and LNJ Foxwoods.
"You see a lot of good two-year-olds turning three coming out of that Aqueduct fall meet," said Mott. "Not every two-year-old is ready to run at Saratoga. Just because they don't win the Hopeful doesn't mean they can't go on and have a nice early 3-year-old season. We've had a lot of two-year-olds win at that meet and go on to do well in Florida."
One such juvenile was Tacitus, who graduated in November 2018 at Aqueduct ahead of winning the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby. Pam and Martin Wygod's Modernist, currently 4th on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with 70 points, broke through in January at the Big A ahead of winning the Grade 2 Risen Star.
Last out, Modernist was an even third in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby. Mott said there are similarities between the dark bay son of Uncle Mo and last year's Derby winner.
"My dad and I spoke about this prior to the Risen Star. They had similar form in their progression, running in the fall of their 2-year-old year and breaking their maiden around the same time," said Mott. "They went to Louisiana around the same time. They're a little different body wise, but there are similarities on paper and they're both tough horses."
Modernist comes from strong family lines. His second dam, the Kris S mare Sweet Life, produced multiple Grade 1-winners Life is Sweet and Sweet Catomine. Mott said the later date for the Kentucky Derby, now slated for the first Saturday in September, should benefit Modernist.
"If you go off pedigree and his physical attributes, it should help him," said Mott. "He always struck us as a horse that would continue to improve as the year went on. He had a really nice race in the Risen Star and although it wasn't too flashy a race, he ran steady in the Louisiana Derby and the numbers came back okay."
The first Friday in September also looms a promising date for the Mott stable with a trio of Kentucky Oaks contenders in Harvey's Lil Goil, Lake Avenue and Antoinette. Bill Mott has yet to add an Oaks score to his impressive ledger.
The Estate of Harvey A. Clarke and Paul Braverman's Harvey's Lil Goil romped to a six-length maiden win at second asking in December at the Big A and followed up with a 7 ½-length score over next-out Busher Invitational champ Water White in the nine-furlong Busanda in February at the Ozone Park oval.
Harvey's Lil Goil is out of the Tapit broodmare Gloria S, who is a half-sister to 2012 Kentucky Derby winner I'll Have Another and the Mott-trained dual graded-stakes winner Golden Award.
While Mott said he would love to help his father secure a first Kentucky Oaks, he is also dreaming of seeing the well-bred daughter of Triple Crown champion American Pharoah in the Alabama this summer at the Spa.
The 1 ¼-mile Alabama, a furlong further than the Oaks, is a race the Mott stable has won on three occasions with Sweet Symphony (2005), Royal Delta (2011) and Elate (2017).
"Everyone dreams of winning the Oaks, but when she won last time it's hard not to think of the Alabama with her. That's a race we'd like to win just as much as the Oaks," said Mott. "The further the better for her and when she fills out and matures, she's going to be really nice.
"She has a really sexy pedigree," added Mott. "She's closely related to I'll Have Another and a filly named Golden Award who won a couple of graded stakes for us last year. She has a very nice dam side and of course having American Pharoah on top doesn't hurt either. The bloodlines are certainly there."
Harvey's Lil Goil is currently 21st on the Kentucky Oaks leaderboard with 10 points.
Godolphin homebred Lake Avenue, a Tapit chestnut, captured the Grade 2 Demoiselle going nine furlongs in December at Aqueduct while garnering an 82 Beyer Speed Figure. After running fourth in the Busher Invitational in her sophomore debut, Lake Avenue was an even third last out in the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Oaks won gate-to-wire by Swiss Skydiver.
Mott said the barn hasn't lost faith in Lake Avenue, who is 11th on the Kentucky Oaks leaderboard with 35 points.
"We know she's talented and we know she can stretch out," said Mott. "Her pedigree doesn't scream distance limitation and while that doesn't always tell the whole story, the way she won the Demoiselle, we don't think she's limited to one turn.
"Her comeback race as a 3-year-old at Aqueduct wasn't very inspiring, but this last race was an improvement," said Mott. "Coming to the quarter pole, it looked like she had as good a shot as any of them. She may have flattened out but maybe the winner ran a good race as well. Other horses are allowed to run well, too. We still think she's a very nice filly."
Godolphin homebred Antoinette, a bay daughter of Hard Spun, graduated at second asking on the Belmont turf in October and followed up with a victory in the off-the-turf Tepin in December at the Big A.
Last out, the versatile Antoinette moved to 12th on the Oaks leaderboard by garnering 20 points in a third-place effort in the Fair Grounds Oaks won by Bonny South in which the well-backed multiple graded-stakes winner Finite landed fourth.
"We didn't think the filly division in New Orleans was the strongest and going into the race my dad said we weren't going to duck one horse - that being Finite - and she ended up running really well," said Mott. "Turning for home, we had a good shot but we lacked some room behind the leaders. They were fanned out in front of us and she had to wait a bit. But she's Grade 2-placed now and that's a big deal for her residual value."
As the trail to the American Classics ambles along, Mott's famous father is on the cusp of saddling 5,000 career winners in North America; a milestone only matched in North American racing by six others.
As of April 1, the 66-year-old Mott has won 4,987 races from 25,443 starts in North America.
"My dad started training very early in life. I think he won his first race when he was 14," said Mott. "Throughout the years, there are many people who have contributed to that number long before I was even alive. People past and present should be very proud. Our current staff has been with us for a long time and the people you have around you mean everything in this game.
"It's a combination of people and horses," continued Mott. "We've been fortunate to have good owners who have supported us and been loyal over the years."
While his dad continues to add to impressive totals, Mott said he is enjoying the experience and soaking up as much knowledge as he can. He appreciates the faith his father places in him when travelling top-class horses around the globe.
"I've been around a lot of big horses in big moments. Even though I'm young, I've seen a lot and done a lot. I know our system and I like to think he trusts my eye," said Mott. "When he sends me off he has confidence in me to execute the plan we have in place. It's fun to go to all these places and have a guy like Bill Mott put his trust in me. I don't take it for granted."