Favorite Trick at the gate in transition race Fla. Derby undercard features Horse of Year

March 13, 1998|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

INDIANTOWN, Fla. -- In a flat vastness of cattle, scrub palms and orange groves, a methodical trainer prepares the reigning ,, Horse of the Year for his toughest campaign.

Bill Mott, who trained two-time Horse of the Year Cigar, says Favorite Trick is ready for his 3-year-old season, beginning tomorrow with the $100,000 Swale Stakes at Gulfstream Park.

Mott says this inside his tiny office 90 miles north of Gulfstream. The racetrack is between Fort Lauderdale and Miami amid condominiums and Cadillacs. Mott trains most of his horses at Payson Park, a training center in a remote area so quiet the red-wing blackbirds sound deafening. Mott wears a hat that reads "Okeechobee Livestock Market."

The son of a veterinarian from Mobridge, South Dakota, Mott, 44, thrives in this environment. He says Favorite Trick, one of his 74 horses here, does, too.

"He's done very well," Mott says. "This is a quiet, laid-back place, and he's a very laid-back horse.

"Cigar was laid back, too, but he would sometimes really get up on the muscle. He'd get real strong. Just walking around the shedrow, he'd start walking you."

The two Horses of the Year also share a training trait. They seem to know how much is enough.

"Cigar would breeze no more than he had to," Mott says. "So many times he'd come to the end of a breeze, and 50 yards from the wire he'd be easing himself up. It was like, 'Forget it. I'm close enough.'

"I think Favorite Trick is the same way. He's in control of what he's doing. It's there. He's just saving it."

The time to unleash it nears. In the seven-furlong Swale, Favorite Trick faces eight other 3-year-olds, none of whom approach him in stature. On the undercard of the $750,000 Florida Derby, the Swale will be shown on tape on ABC's telecast beginning at 5: 30 p.m.

The race marks the completion of a strange transition for Favorite Trick from superstar 2-year-old to question-mark 3-year-old. Last year, he won all eight of his races and was voted not only 2-year-old champion but also Horse of the Year. He became the first juvenile since Secretariat to win that honor.

Then, he stepped into the unknown.

After roaring to a 5 1/2 -length victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Nov. 8 at Hollywood Park, Favorite Trick was transported to a training facility in Ocala, Fla., where both front ankles were "blistered" -- a common treatment for troublesome ankles. His only training for nearly two months was walking twice a day around the shedrow.

Also, his trainer, Patrick Byrne, accepted a job as private trainer for the Canadian industrialist Frank Stronach, meaning Byrne had to give up all horses owned by others. Favorite Trick's owner, the retired Cincinnati business executive Joseph LaCombe, selected Mott as Byrne's replacement.

That raised more than a few eyebrows. Mott is known as a conservative trainer, not the type to push maturing 3-year-olds into the Kentucky Derby. Mott has run only one horse in the Derby: Taylor's Special in 1984. He finished 13th.

"Before I ever accepted the training job for the horse," Mott says, "I had to consider whether I wanted to take something that was almost perfect and subject myself to criticism and second-guessing if he does get beat or doesn't live up to expectations. Also, I had to decide whether I wanted to forfeit my time to the media.

"So you ask yourself those things, but it's really a no-brainer. You've got to go ahead and accept the challenge."

And the challenge is large. Although Favorite Trick has never been beaten, his sire is Phone Trick, a sprinter. Favorite Trick has won twice at 1 1/16 miles. The Kentucky Derby distance of 1 1/4 miles may be beyond reach -- for Mott as well as the horse.

"It's almost laughable to me," Mott says. "Here I've got Favorite Trick, champion 2-year-old and Horse of the Year, a horse by Phone Trick out of a Medieval Man mare. And the Derby's a mile and a quarter, but everybody's going to say Mott doesn't want to go to the Derby."

Byrne, Favorite Trick's former trainer, said that if you mention the word around Mott, he breaks into hives. Mott didn't appreciate that.

"Why wouldn't I want to go to the Derby?" Mott says. "Of course I want to go. If I have a 3-year-old that fits the Derby picture, we want to be in there.

"Every year I've made Derby nominations in hopes that something would develop. I've had horses that were race-ready and fit enough to go into the Derby. They just weren't Derby quality."

That doesn't stop some trainers. But Mott is known as one who won't sacrifice a horse for an elusive dream. He won't even discuss Favorite Trick's chances of making the Derby. The horse must pass the test of the Swale, and then the 1 1/8 -mile Toyota Blue Grass Stakes on April 11 at Keeneland.

"If this horse would jump up and run well in the Blue Grass, and he's doing well, I'd say there's a good possibility he'll go in the Derby," Mott says. "But it's one step at a time. You've got to be logical about it."

Logic also says that Mott's appreciation for Favorite Trick differs from his admiration for Cigar. Mott took Cigar, a mediocre turf horse, and transformed him into a winner of 16 straight on dirt and Horse of the World.

"It is different, without question," Mott says. "Favorite Trick's achievements have nothing to do with me. There's no way I could have the pride in his accomplishments that I have in Cigar's.

"I've just kind of taken over, and now we're going to do the best we can. Our record hasn't been put on paper yet."

Pub Date: 3/13/98

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