LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- A walnut podium stands at one end of the Churchill Downs press box, where, traditionally, the owner, trainer and jockey of the winning Kentucky Derby horse field questions about what is perhaps their single greatest achievement.
Yesterday, Bill Mott stood at the podium moments after the announcement that he had been selected for induction into the National Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame. At 44, Mott is the youngest trainer ever chosen for the honor.
He has won Breeders' Cup races, Eclipse Awards and the Dubai World Cup. He trained Cigar. But he has never stood at that podium in the glorious minutes after the Kentucky Derby.
Asked about that blank spot on his resume, Mott said: "I think we're coming up on that Saturday."
Three days from now, Mott will lead Favorite Trick from Barn 19 on the Churchill Downs' backstretch onto the track for the long walk to the paddock -- in the hallowed footsteps of Secretariat. Already, the two horses are linked in history.
They are the only 2-year-olds -- since the advent of the Eclipse Awards -- to be voted Horse of the Year. At 3, they finished third in their race before the Kentucky Derby: the Wood Memorial Stakes for Secretariat, the Arkansas Derby for Favorite Trick.
On Saturday, 25 years after Secretariat's Derby, Favorite Trick will likely be third choice in the betting behind Indian Charlie, who has not lost in four outings, and Halory Hunter, who won the Blue Grass Stakes. Doubts persist about Favorite Trick's ability to run 1 1/4 miles -- just as they did about Secretariat's -- especially after Favorite Trick was passed by two horses in the stretch of the 1 1/8 -mile Arkansas Derby.
However, Mott, other trainers and Favorite Trick's jockey, Pat Day, say the colt -- whose loss was his first after nine wins -- may enter the Kentucky Derby stronger than ever.
"What happened in the Arkansas Derby could be just what the doctor ordered," said Day, the Hall of Fame jockey who has ridden Favorite Trick every race.
What happened was that Favorite Trick broke sharply, as he had before, but then didn't relax. He chased a hopeless long shot through suicidal fractions and then tired.
"I cannot begin to imagine that the same scenario will develop on Saturday afternoon," Day said, "And if it does, I think I'll respond a little differently. I'll tuck him up before he really gets running, so he'll settle and fall in behind the leaders."
Carl Nafzger, who trained the 1990 Derby winner, Unbridled, said Favorite Trick is his pick. So did Patrick Byrne, who conditioned Favorite Trick last year through his 8-for-8 campaign. Three of those victories occurred at Churchill Downs.
"I think he's a wonderful horse," said Byrne, who lost him when he accepted a job as private trainer for Frank Stronach. "I know he loves the racetrack.
"He's got a good trainer in Bill Mott. He's got a great rider who knows him like the back of his hand. If Pat gets the relaxing trick he's looking for, I think he'll be awfully tough."
Byrne said he thinks Favorite Trick was ultra-sharp in Arkansas because he had just won a seven-furlong sprint, the Swale Stakes, at Gulfstream Park.
"That concrete highway's so speed-favoring," Byrne said of the Gulfstream track. "Pat had to belly down from the get-go just to keep him close. I think that caused him to be overly sharp his next race.
"But the Arkansas race was a great prep. I was disappointed he got beat, but, hey, they all get beat. Even Secretariat got beat."
Mott said Favorite Trick couldn't be doing better. He said he shows no ill effects from Monday's misstep during a morning workout. Although Mott was on the track, he didn't see Favorite Trick nearly fall. He didn't see it until that evening on tape at home, and then, he said, "My heart kind of dropped in my chest." He was so disturbed he drove back to track to check the colt over again.
Asked about Favorite Trick's sprinter's breeding, Mott said: "There's not a more efficient mover on the racetrack than him. He's smooth as a cat. If anything would ever allow him to get the trip or overcome his pedigree or do whatever he's got to do to win a Kentucky Derby at a mile and a quarter, it'd be that efficiency in stride and his other abilities that go along with it."
In short, Mott said: "I think we're in good shape. I don't see how we could be in any better shape."
Ky. Derby facts
Race: 124th Kentucky Derby
Site: Churchill Downs, Louisville, Ky.
Distance: 1 1/4 miles Purse: $1 million
Likely favorite: Indian Charlie
When: 5: 27 p.m. Saturday
TV: Chs. 2, 7 (coverage starts at 4: 30 p.m.)
Pub Date: 4/29/98