LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Sometime in his childhood in South Dakota, unbeknownst to him, someone must have inoculated Bill Mott against Derby Fever.

The malady, until recent years, hit some folks every spring – its chief symptom being the irresistible urge to enter colts into the Kentucky Derby that don’t realistically belong in the 1 ¼-mile classic.

Mott has a list of racing accomplishments as long as the Churchill Downs backstretch.

He has been the Eclipse Award winner for trainer of the year three times. He has won the Belmont Stakes, 10 Breeders’ Cup races and the Dubai World Cup.

He got a 3-year-old with less than $90,000 in earnings, took his time bringing him around, and trained him into the highest-rated thoroughbred of the 1990’s, Cigar. He was elected to the National Racing Museum and Hall of Fame in 1998, the youngest thoroughbred trainer ever inducted.

Mott first came to the Derby 34 years ago, and has had plenty of top-flight horses, but has entered only seven in the Kentucky Derby. Of those, none has hit the board. Despite having been the winningest trainer ever at Churchill Downs (until last year), he hasn’t had a colt in the Derby for nine years, since Hold Me Back finished 12th before going on to run second in the Travers and fourth in the Jockey Club Gold Cup a year later.

The point is, Mott doesn’t just do this ever year for the heck of it, though he probably could be here most years. So when he says, “This may be as good a chance as I’ve ever had,” it’s worth considering the colt he’s discussing.

Hofburg, a Juddmonte Farms homebred who impressed everybody when he ran a wide trip in his second race and still scored an easy victory to break his maiden. Mott then gave him some time off, didn’t race him again for six months, until bringing him out as a 3-year-old who showed far more maturity.

Off his maiden, Mott got ambitious and entered Hofburg into the Grade 1 Florida Derby, where he ran a strong second to Audible to punch his Derby ticket.

“He earned his way in,” Mott said of Hofburg. “He earned his points to get in, and that’s half the battle. We’ve got some nice horses sitting on the outside (of the points standings) that would like to get in. We were there, and in Florida he got a good second, galloped out well that day and we think he’s mature acting enough and sensible and has a lot of training in him, so we thought he was worth taking a chance.”

For all Mott’s credentials, he’d still love to get the Kentucky Derby. He just isn’t willing to take a silly shot to go after it.

“I think you’ve got to have the right horse,” Mott said. “We’ve come down before when we thought we had a horse that had some sort of chance in here. There’s other years we didn’t participate. Either we didn’t have a horse that was a dirt horse or a horse we thought would get the distance. I don’t think we’ve ever left any horses out of it that would’ve had a chance. Looking back, I don’t think we’ve made that mistake.”

“We’ve been here before,” Mott added. “. . . I came for the first time with a horse called Taylor Special, who was a local favorite, a good horse, but a horse that was really bred to go 6-7 furlongs. We had won with him going a mile and an eighth, he won the Blue Grass and Louisiana Derby. But the 10 furlongs of the Kentucky Derby is a different deal. Once they run all the way down that stretch for the first time and head down the backside some horses will start to have second thoughts about doing it. We were here with Favored Trick, who was a very good miler, and Rock and Roll, who was a good miler. But you’ve really got to have a good horse with a good temperament and wants the distance and has the stamina to go the 10 furlongs.”

Mott thinks he has such a colt in Hofburg. On the track at Churchill Downs, Hofburg has looked right at home. Mike Battaglia installed him at 20-1 odds in the morning line, but Mott’s quiet confidence – given his long experience – makes you take a closer look.

“I was confident that he was a nice horse,” Mott said. “I think we had to prove ourselves a little bit. I think the Florida Derby was a good proving ground for that. He showed us a lot. He showed us a lot in his maiden, ran wide and was a little green, but he was more professional in the Florida Derby.  He’s got to move forward. Every horse needs to move forward from their past races if they’re going to win the Derby, and he’s certainly one of them, but I would think he’s certainly one of them who could move forward.”

Mott said the Derby is definitely on his “bucket list.” He’s not alone in that. But he’s also not going to fret if that resume line goes unfilled.

“I’ve been in this same barn, I think, for over 30 years,” Mott said. “We’ve run some good horses out of here, and maybe one day we’ll run a Kentucky Derby winner out of it.”

Maybe Hofburg will write the storyline.

“He handles things very well,” Mott said. “He’s very smart. I think he’s a pretty cool, collected character. . . . When you lead them over there, there’s really not much you can do to prepare a horse for Derby Day. They’re either going to handle it or they’re not. When they walk around that turn and see the crowd – there’s no place we can take them to get them ready for that. We can get the races in them, we can get the bottom in them, we can get the foundation in them, but we can’t fake Derby Day.”

And in Mott’s case, he doesn’t even try.

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