Native Dancer: The Nearly Perfect Grey Ghost of Sagamore
Even as a teenager, when some youngsters are inclined to think the world is theirs for the taking, Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott did not dream big.
“I was 18 years old and hauling horses around in a two-horse trailer to the bush tracks,” recalled the native of Mobridge, S.D. “I never imagined training for anybody else other than myself.”
As the son of a veteran, Mott had grown up around horses. He possessed a love for them and a desire to bring out whatever innate abilities each of them had. It was that way with My Assets, a $320 mare who finished in a dead heat to give him his first victory and enough earnings to help him purchase Kosmic Tour for $2,000. Incredibly, Mott won the South Dakota Futurity with Kosmic Tour before he graduated from high school.
Mott spent time as an exercise rider and learned lessons that would last him a lifetime as an assistant to Hall of Famer Jack Van Berg for three years. He set out on his own in 1978. “It all certainly worked in my favor and it just turned into a business,” he said.
His willingness to respect the needs of his horses, to allow them to dictate the rate of their progress, reaped huge rewards. He owns 10 training titles at Belmont Park, nine apiece at Saratoga Race Course in upstate New York and at Florida’s Gulfstream Park, and five at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky. He boasts 10 Breeders’ Cup victories.
In 1998, at age 45, Mott surpassed Allen Jerkens as the youngest trainer to be inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame. He became the ninth trainer in North American history to record 4,000 victories when Mystic prevailed at Saratoga on Aug. 7, 2010.
The self-effacing Mott expresses disbelief at his level of accomplishment. “It wasn’t something I planned, so did it far exceed anything I thought it would? Absolutely,” he said.
Mott is best known, of course, for his handiwork with Cigar, who had shown little ability under previous hands. Mott’s first decision typified his willingness to give horses the time they need, ever confident that there will be a reward for that patience. He kept Cigar away from the races for half a year.
He also unlocked the key to Cigar, who had faltered on the turf, by trying him in a dirt race at Aqueduct. As the saying goes, he won for fun. He was on his way.
Cigar stitched together one of the most brilliant campaigns in history when his 10-for-10 perfection in 1995 culminated in a resounding victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on a muddy track at Belmont Park.
Mott views that as his most memorable triumph. “We hadn’t breezed him on an off track, so I wasn’t sure how he was going to do,” he said. “To have him pass that test on that particular day and, obviously, he sewed up a championship and a Horse of the Year trophy, it was pretty special.”
Cigar and jockey Jerry Bailey went on to win the inaugural running of the Dubai World Cup and to tie Citation’s record of 16 consecutive victories. Cigar retired with $9,999,815 in earnings, then a record.
Mott earned his first victory in a Triple Crown when Drosselmeyer delivered as a 13-1 longshot in the 2010 Belmont Stakes, and in 2019 Country House won the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve at 65.20-1 odds to give him his first win in the run for the roses. Perhaps the better measure of Mott is that he fashioned seven year-end champions.
“I can’t imagine that I’ve been lucky enough to be in the position that I’ve been in the last few years,” he said.
Editor's note: This story was originally published in November 2017 and has been updated.
- Cleaned stalls for $50 a week at age 14
- Sold cattle and pigs as teenager to raise money to buy horses he could train.
- Earned first Grade 1 victory when Heatherten took the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark. in 1984
- Saddled 1998 Belmont Stakes winner Victory Gallop for trainer Elliott Walden because Walden was limited by a broken leg.
- Has made a habit of celebrating his July 29 birthday with victories at Saratoga Race Course. His birthday has become an annual angle for Saratoga horseplayers.