racing

Horse racing’s final season in Fort Pierre might have been 2018, as this race was run in a Capital Journal photo, after state funding dried up and the two-weekend season was cancelled this spring. The Fort Pierre track is where Bill Mott, trainer of Kentucky Derby winner Country House, began his career at 15.

Bill Mott, the Hall of Fame racehorse trainer who saw the horse he trained, Country House, improbably declared the winner of the historic Kentucky Derby on Saturday, has South Dakota roots that do him well, say those here who know him from back then.

On Tuesday, May 7, Mott announced his horse, Country House, won’t be able to run in the Preakness on May 18 because of illness after his weird win on Saturday.

Mott was born in Mobridge in 1953 where his father had a veterinary clinic and he began his training career at 15 in Fort Pierre. He rose quickly to become one of the winningest and most-highly-regarded trainers in the industry.

The Kentucky Derby on May 4 made history when Maximum Security crossed the finish line first but within minutes was disqualified, the first such result in the Derby’s 145 years.

Race stewards determined Maximum Security veered too much into following horses, interfering, and so awarded the trophy to Country House, a 65-1 shot trained by Mott.

Tom Maher, a Pierre attorney with a long history in horse racing, including at Fort Pierre, watched the Derby on Saturday from South Dakota with some South Dakota pride in Mott.

“I was so impressed with the class he showed while they were waiting for the decision, not greedily anticipating a bonus for himself, but simply saying he felt the stewards would do what was fair. I think that showed his South Dakota class.”

“He’s a hard-working, honest trainer, and I think his South Dakota roots show,” Maher said.

Mott’s way of handling the brouhaha won him praise outside South Dakota, too. Here’s what the Washington Post reported: “Long regarded as an elite horseman of uncommon patience and as the trainer of 1990s two-time Horse of the Year Cigar, the South Dakota native then said of the stewards, ‘I’m glad I wasn’t in their shoes. I’m glad I didn’t have to make a decision in front of a hundred thousand people and millions of people watching around the world.’”

“Then he said, ‘With that being said, I’m damned glad they put our number up.’”

Mott spoke on Saturday of his start in racing in South Dakota, at Fort Pierre and Aberdeen tracks, venues now, perhaps ironically, shuttered this year for the first time in 70 years as state funding petered out.

“But I tell the story that the first Derby I heard, I was in Fort Pierre, South Dakota, and I was in front of a GMC van,” Mott said Saturday in Louisville after his horse was named winner, according to The Sport online. “I was 14 years old at the time, I believe. (Actually he turned 14 about six weeks after that May 6, 1967 Derby.) And I turned the radio on and heard the call of Proud Clarion winning the Kentucky Derby. And at that point in time, I couldn’t even imagine being at Churchill Downs or coming to Churchill Downs. I never thought I would get out of South Dakota, to tell you the truth. And to be here and not only be the leading trainer at Churchill Downs for so many years and making so many acquaintances and having such a good start here and then to — finally — win the Derby. I’ll reflect back on this for a long time.”

Mott was sitting in Keith Asmussen’s van, a jockey and father of future Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen of South Dakota roots, who also had a horse at Churchill Downs on Saturday.

Mott has been a top trainer for years and held the all-time wins record at Churchill Downs from 1988-2017, but had never won the Kentucky Derby. Mott became famous for training Cigar to a record 16 straight wins in 1995-1996: Cigar was named Horse of the Year both years.

Mott’s horses have won nearly $280 million, according to racing news sources.

Mott also owns some racing horses.

His first horse he trained was one he owned, a filly named My Assets, bought for $320 in Fort Pierre for Mott by his father, veterinarian Tom Mott, when Bill Mott was 15. He won his first race here in Fort Pierre with My Assets and the prize was a blanket that he kept for years, Mott told E.S. Bud Lamoreaux III this past weekend as seen online in the Paulick Report.

Dr. Sam Holland, now retired in Pierre as state veterinarian, moved to Mobridge when Mott was young and bought the veterinary clinic of Tom Mott, Bill’s father. Mott’s brother, Rob, is a retired crop spray pilot living in Mobridge, Holland said.

Just 18 months ago, Holland went pheasant hunting with the Mott brothers at a hunting lodge near Selby, not far from Mobridge.

“It was the year before last,” Holland said. “Bill was back in Mobridge, visiting his brother Rob and friends. And a mutual friend called. And we had a very nice pheasant hunt. He’s a gentleman.”

As much to horses as to people, which counts with Holland.

“Billy Mott is a straight gentleman in every respect,” Holland told the Capital Journal on Tuesday. “He’s very unassuming and has always been known for the care he gives horses. For giving them time to develop. He’s known for being very cautious, if a horse may have an injury or an illness, he’s known for bringing them along very slowly and very carefully. In my opinion, that’s why he’s been so successful.”

Which may help explain Mott’s announcement on Tuesday that Country House would not be running in the Preakness on May 18, in the second leg of racing’s Triple Crown.

“He developed a little bit of a cough this morning,” Mott said in a phone interview, according to the Daily Racing Form. “His appetite is good. He doesn’t have a fever. But he’s coughing. We drew blood. He’s acting like he’s going to get sick. He’s off the training list, and if he’s off the training list, he’s off the Preakness list.”

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