LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - Hofburg's final timed workout before Saturday's Kentucky Derby served as a microcosm of why he's even in the race:
"He wasn't being pushed to doing it. He was doing it mostly on his own," Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott said after Juddmonte Farm's Florida Derby runner-up worked a half-mile in 48 1/5 seconds, galloping out five-eighths of a mile in 1:01 under exercise rider Penny Gardiner.
The same could be true of Mott running the Juddmonte Farms-owned Hofburg in the Florida Derby off a maiden victory at Gulfstream Park. A second-place finish behind Audible in that spot encouraged Mott to run the colt in the 144th Kentucky Derby.
Mott is known as extremely conservative when it comes to pushing young horses, never losing sight that there could be racing for them at ages 4 and beyond.
"Very much so," he said Sunday morning when asked if such a step up in competition wasn't very aggressive for him. "But this horse just led me into it. I don't think it was a case I forced him into it. He broke his maiden, looked good doing it. He was very impressive, seven wide on the first turn. The race was probably a little more impressive than what margin of victory would tell you. I looked at the schedule and they have all the big races that time of the year, so the horses were spread out. Being we were in Florida and I thought going back to that track it made sense to run in the race."
Hofburg started his work behind stablemate Villamay. Astride his pony, Mott was able to watch the entire training move on Churchill Downs' Big Board mega screen.
"He looked like he went off well," Mott said. "He joined his company a little bit early. The company was maybe going a little bit slow off the first eighth mile and he joined up. But he looked smooth as silk coming by me when he passed the eighth pole. When he approached the wire, he looked really good, switched leads, went into the turn and galloped out good around the turn.
"I'm very pleased with the work. The rider was pleased with the work. Visually he looked as good as he could look. I guess he went 48 and out five-eighths in 1:01, which is a useful work, not anything to get overly excited about but a very nice useful work, the kind of work you'd like to see in a horse right on top of a race. You don't want to see them leave their race out on the racetrack going too fast. The main thing is that they're doing it easily, well with himself. He wasn't being pushed to doing it. He was doing it mostly on his own."
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Hofburg, a son of super-sire Tapit and out of a mare by Belmont Stakes winner Touch Gold, brings only three races into the Kentucky Derby. But one of them came last Sept. 2 when he finished fourth at 18-1 at Saratoga in his first start. So while Big Brown in 2008 is the only horse to win the Derby in its fourth lifetime start since the filly Regret in 2015, Mott doesn't have to answer the questions about an unraced 2-year-old only winning the Kentucky Derby once: Apollo in 1882.
Hofburg ran for the second time March 3 at Gulfstream Park, winning a 1 1/16-mile maiden race by a half-length, then four weeks later rallying from more than 15 lengths back to take second in the Florida Derby, checking in three lengths behind Audible.
"We got him to the races in September, which is probably as early as a lot of these horses have made it to the races," Mott said. "We had some little baby issues, maturity issues after that race. We felt it best to give him a little bit of time, and it was not until March when we got him back to the races.
"He hasn't backed up, he's moved forward. The races seem to have made him better. Some horses take their races hard; they try hard and it wears them out. It doesn't seem like that had an adverse effect on him. It's all been positive. He's gotten stronger, better and smoother. Whether that's good enough, we'll all see on Derby Day."
But for such a lightly-raced horse, Mott says Hofburg has actually gotten "pretty good experience in all three of his races."
"When we ran him in a sprint race at Saratoga, he ate quite a bit of dirt there, came on and just a steady finish," he said. "Probably not really the type to win at a sprint distance at Saratoga. But he came back and endured a very wide trip at Gulfstream in his maiden race, ate a lot of dirt, came back plastered and it looked like somebody had smeared it on him — and same thing in the Florida Derby. He took the kick-back very well, and I think that's important in a big field. They have to be able to take that dirt and kickback and still be able to level off and run into it and be courageous enough to fight on after all that happens.
"I expected he'd run a good race," Mott said of the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby. "I think I have to be pleased ... with second. The horse that beat us on that day was a more experienced horse, a few more races and a good horse. That said, our fella will probably improve and move forward with that race."
Still, he said, there's one area in which no horse possesses experience: Derby Day itself, with the 170,000 people in the grandstand and infield, let alone the crowded backside forming a gauntlet through which the horses must walk to get onto the track.
"There's no place we can take them to get them ready for that," Mott said. "We can get the races in them, the bottom in them, the foundation in them. But we can't fake the Derby."