Billy Reed: Trainers Mott, Romans seek elusive first Derby win
LOUISVILLE (WAVE) – Sometimes the Kentucky Derby gods decide to just throw out all the past performances, speed figures, and formulas so they can reward an owner, trainer, or jockey who has paid his or her dues to the point that he or she simply deserves to win the world's most famous thoroughbred race.
So it was in 1984, when Swale finally brought the bright orange silks of historic Claiborne Farm into the Derby winner's circle. So it was in 1992, when popular jockey Pat Day finally got his Derby aboard the longshot Lil E. Tee. And so it was in 2009, when Orb gave trainer Shug McGaughey and the Phipps Stable of New York the Derby they had been long awaiting.
Looking at this year's Derby field, the two main candidates for Derby serendipity are trainers Dale Romans and Bill Mott. They rank 1-2, respectively, on the list of trainers with the most career wins at Churchill Downs. Yet both also belong to a club they would desperately like to escape – The Honorable Society of Best Trainers Who Never Won the Derby.
Next Saturday, the day of the Derby's 144th running, neither Romans nor Mott will saddle one of the Derby favorites. Romans has Promises Fulfilled and Free Drop Billy, who both lack the credentials of unbeaten favorites Magnum Moon and Justify. Mott will saddle Hofburg, who finished second to Audible in the Florida Derby, just his third career start.
So it appears both will need a push from the Derby gods to beat what's shaping up as a talented field. But stranger things have happened. Both Romans and Mott are accomplished horsemen who have won just about everything worth winning except the Derby.
Mott, 65, and Romans, 52, both come from racing families. Mott's father was a veterinarian in North Dakota; Romans' father Jerry a training fixture on the Kentucky circuit in the 1970s and 1980s. In fact, when Mott won his first race at Churchill in 1978, Dale was a 12-year-old working for his dad.
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Mott's mentor was the late Jack Van Berg, who won the 1987 Derby with Alysheba. His most prominent owners have been Bert and Diana Firestone, who won the 1980 Derby with the filly Genuine Risk, and Allen Paulsen, the airplane magnate who owned all or part of seven Derby entrants, none of which was a serious challenger.
Unlike Romans, who freely admits that winning the Derby is his life's passion, Mott never fervently chased the roses. He made his reputation with grass horses and older horses, most notably with the great Cigar. At ages 5 and 6, Cigar reeled off 16 consecutive wins, tying a North American record, and was Horse of the Year both years.
However, in his 40 years of training, Mott has saddled only seven horses in the Derby, and his record, frankly, is abysmal. His only entrant to crack the top 10 was Favorite Trick, eighth in 1998. His other horses have finished 13th, 14th, 11th, 13th, 14th, and 12th.
This indicates that Mott has brought horses to the Derby only because the owners insisted. Given his old-fashioned ways, Mott doesn't believe in pushing young horses. He has been perfectly content to let them mature, and, like Cigar, compete in the stakes races for older horses.
On the other hand, Romans is driven to win a Derby before his family and friends from Louisville's South End. As he said in a 2015 interview, "My favorite part is the walk from the barn to the chute. It's special because people I grew up with and my friends line the road to watch our horse walk and wish us good luck. People also yell down at us from the clubhouse. I went to school with these people, or played Little League with them."
So far, Romans' record is decidedly better than Mott's. Since 2006, he has saddled eight Derby horses and finished third twice (Paddy O'Prado in 2010 and Dullahan in 2012). In 2011, he was fourth with Shackleford, who won the Preakness in Baltimore two weeks later.
The most important break of Romans' career came almost 20 years ago, when he hooked up with owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey. Their two best horses probably were Roses in May, a second-place finisher in the Breeders' Cup Classic and winner of the UAE Derby, and Kitten's Joy, who became one of the nation's leading sires.
In 2015, Romans made history when his Keen Ice upset American Pharoah, the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga. Keen Ice had finished seventh to American Pharoah in that year's Derby.
Last Nov. 12, Romans won the sixth race at Churchill with Storm Runner, giving him 703 career wins and pushing him past Mott as the track's leader in all-time victories. Heading into the current meet, Romans has 706 Churchill wins to Mott's 702. And not a single Derby among those 1,408 victories.
Always high on his Derby horses, Romans was ecstatic on March 3, when Promises Fulfilled won the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park. However, a month later, the colt took the early lead in the Florida Derby, only to tire and struggle home ninth behind Audible, beaten by 35 ½ lengths.
He also had high hopes for Free Drop Billy after the son of Union Rags won last fall's Breeders Futurity at Keeneland. But then the colt concluded his 2-year-old season with a 29-length loss in the Breeders Cup Juvenile. This year he has finished second, third and fourth against Derby horses such as Good Magic, Audible, and Solomini.
As for Mott, he apparently saw something special in Hofburg's run from eighth to second, behind Audible, in the Florida Derby. That has to be the case because the colt's breeder and owner, Juddamonte Farm, wouldn't put him in the Derby just for the experience of the thing.
A win by Mott, who has been based in New York since 1986, would be more one for the racing establishment. But a win for Romans would be for Louisville, especially the neighborhoods around Churchill Downs. The parties from Longfield Avenue outside the track to Iroquois Park might go on until the Preakness.
It's all in the hands of the Derby gods, of course. Mott and Romans are just a couple of dreamers still hoping to get kicked out of The Honorable Society of Best Trainers Who Never Won the Derby.
Billy Reed is a longtime sportswriter who contributes regular columns to WAVE3.com.
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