There is a quiet pride to trainer Bill Mott, born no doubt from being a self-made man who weathered the harsh climes of South Dakota and worked his way up from caring for his father's horses and cattle to becoming the youngest Thoroughbred trainer to be inducted into racing's Hall of Fame.
That pride cuts both ways this Triple Crown season, one that has unfolded like no other.
Mott, after years of wondering whether he would ever land a Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve victory, got the elusive win May 4 at Churchill Downs, a track where he had the record for most victories for several decades until Dale Romans recently passed him.
But that triumph with Country House came with a figurative asterisk, as Country House was awarded the victory through the disqualification of Maximum Security, the first such instance in Derby history.
While he is not going to apologize for Country House's Derby win, Mott is well aware of its unique circumstance, and he is reminded of it every time a passer-by or acquaintance offers him congratulations on the feat. The words of congratulations are familiar, but they come without the emotion or enthusiasm the situation would normally elicit.
Mott knows the best way to rectify this unusual situation is to win another Derby. In the immediacy, however, the quickest way to get past the Country House controversy would be to win the June 8 Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets, which the conditioner has a strong chance of doing with Juddmonte Farms' Tacitus, who checked in fourth and was placed third in the Louisville confusion.
Tacitus will likely battle Preakness Stakes winner War of Will for favoritism in the third jewel of the Triple Crown, and they drew next to one another in the two outside posts for the Belmont. A Belmont victory by Tacitus would open a battle for championship honors among this crop of 3-year-olds that will not be settled until a possible showdown in the Runhappy Travers Stakes at Saratoga in late August, with another for those still standing in the Breeders' Cup Classic on Nov. 2 at Santa Anita Park.
No trainer outside D. Wayne Lukas in recent decades has pulled off Triple Crown victories with different horses in the same year. Mott, however, is not completely foreign to the concept of producing big wins in a short period of time.
"It would be nice," Mott said from his Barn 25 on the Belmont Park backstretch. "I suppose it would be like winning the two Breeders' Cup races in 2011 when Drosselmeyer won the Classic the same weekend that Royal Delta won the Ladies' Classic (now Longines Distaff).
"Having the Derby winner this year has given me an incentive to come back and win it again. It makes you hungrier. For a long time you live with the feeling that maybe it's never going to happen for you. Not like I ever gave up trying. You keep on trying, and if it happens, it happens. Now, I'd like to win one in a more traditional way."
Adding some mustard to a potential Tacitus triumph in the Belmont are the facts the colt is a homebred for longtime Mott client Juddmonte Farms and that Mott expertly trained Tacitus' dam, Close Hatches, to five Grade 1 victories and 2014 champion older mare honors. But in this case, it's not necessarily a case of "like mother, like son."
"Sometimes it's easier having trained past members of the family," Mott allowed. "I don't know that it relates here because Tacitus has a great disposition, while Close Hatches was tough to train because she was very strong and wanted to be very fast – almost a little too fast for her own good in the mornings. With him, you don't have those issues."
Tacitus was sent off at odds of 5.80-1 in the Derby, and Country House was 65.20-1. Tacitus lost early position, which made his trip the rest of the way a challenge.
"I thought his Derby was good," Mott said of Tacitus. "He came running, but he had to change course a number of times, weaving inside and outside through traffic. He was willing, and he never got stopped or checked, but every time you change course, you're probably taking a little something away from your momentum. It wasn't a bad trip, but it wasn't a golden trip like Country House actually got."
Country House, who exited the Derby with a cough, is slated to return to racing sometime during the Saratoga Race Course meet. If all goes right, Tacitus and Country House will face off again in the Travers. Mott hopes that will be a battle of classic winners that will push the Derby narrative farther down the road in his rearview mirror.