The Unlikely Legacy Mott, Lukas, and Asmussen Carry On from South Dakota

Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott visited the Kentucky Derby winner's circle on Saturday, a long way from his roots in South Dakota.
Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott visited the Kentucky Derby winner's circle on Saturday, a long way from his roots in South Dakota. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Bill Mott's breakthrough in the Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve with Country House on Saturday came 35 years after his first runner in the run for the roses and more than 50 years since a red-letter day in his life, at a small racetrack in South Dakota.

Amid the din of controversy over the disqualification of Maximum Security, Mott reflected back to the first time he remembers listening to the call of the Kentucky Derby. It was a memory he had shared before his Derby debut in 1984, at other points marking his long list of achievements at Churchill Downs, and again in the week before this year's Derby.

Mott, at age 65, still tends to marvel at how far his career in racing has taken him from the first Saturday in May in 1967 when he listened to the Derby on the radio at a half-mile racetrack in Fort Pierre, S.D. What is all the more remarkable is that two of his earliest contemporaries, his first boss Keith Asmussen and fellow Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, were also at Churchill on Saturday with many, many miles and milestones threading back to their roots in South Dakota racing.

Country House sports the Derby rose garland.
Country House sports the Derby rose garland. (Eclipse Sportswire)

"Being in this position up at this podium is a very special thing," Mott said in a press conference after Country House was promoted to Derby glory. "My hope was always to come back and run in the Derby, hopefully to get a horse that's good enough to run in the Derby. And could I ever have imagined winning it? Well, you always hope.

"But I tell the story that the first Derby I heard, I was at Fort Pierre, South Dakota, and I was in front of a GMC van. ... I was 14 years old at the time, I believe. And I turned the radio on and I 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."

As fate would have it, Mott's Derby win came just a few weeks after Fort Pierre canceled its racing season for 2019, citing a lack of funds. So too did Aberdeen, which means there will be no live racing in South Dakota this year.

Park Jefferson racetrack in North Sioux City also is long gone, but an indelible legacy of South Dakota racing lives on through Mott and extended even further on Saturday's card at Churchill Downs.

Mott listened to that 1967 Derby in a van owned by Keith Asmussen, a jockey at the time and the father of future Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, who won four races at Churchill on Saturday, including the Grade 1 Humana Distaff with Mia Mischief and the Grade 1 Churchill Downs Stakes presented by with Mitole. Mott's first job at the racetrack was that summer at age 14 in 1967, working for Keith Asmussen at Atokad Downs and at a nearby family farm. Mott and Keith Asmussen's wife, Marilyn, a stakes-winning trainer in her own right, are both from Mobridge, S.D.

And who was giving jockey Keith Asmussen a leg up for many of his Quarter Horse wins in South Dakota back in the 1960s? None other than Lukas, who continues to add to his unique profile as perhaps the most influential, and certainly one of the most successful, trainers in the last half century, capped off by four Kentucky Derby triumphs. It was at Park Jefferson that Mott and Lukas first crossed paths, with their horses bedded down in adjacent barns and Mott struck by the immaculate shedrows that would become a trademark of Lukas's later days in Thoroughbred racing.

D. Wayne Lukas
D. Wayne Lukas (Eclipse Sportswire)

The likelihood that they both would progress from there to the Racing Hall of Fame? Lukas has said the odds were "10 million to 1," and that is not even factoring in the imprint Keith and Marilyn Asmussen have made in providing the early racing lessons for leading sire Tapit and champion Untapable, not to mention the Asmussens' sons Cash and Steve. Cash Asmussen became a champion jockey in the U.S. and Europe. Steve Asmussen is enshrined with Lukas and Mott in the trainer section of the Racing Hall of Fame.

This past Saturday, Steve Asmussen wrapped up a terrific weekend with two straight allowance victories closing out Churchill's Derby card as the announced crowd of 150,729 filed out.

After the finale, Keith and Marilyn Asmussen stood beaming by the winner's circle, waiting to congratulate their son one more time.

"It's unbelievable what these guys have done," Keith said of his son and fellow Hall of Famers Lukas and Mott. "A lot of it is luck but a lot of hard work too. The hard work makes the luck.

"I rode first-call for Wayne for a few years when he was training Quarter Horses at Park Jefferson and then we moved to Laredo, Texas, together and then off he went to do what he's done. We've been in Laredo ever since."

The one major hole in Steve Asmussen's resume, much like Mott's before this past Saturday, is a Kentucky Derby victory. He finished 16th on Saturday with Long Range Toddy, one of the horses at the center of the disqualification of Maximum Security.

The likelihood that Asmussen will one day fill in that gap and join Lukas and Mott as Kentucky Derby winners? More than 50 years of racing history suggests it would be foolish to bet against him.

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