It was the morning of June 5, and Bill Mott sat atop his pony outside his barn reflecting on the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), to be run later that afternoon. Mott had never won the Belmont, or any classic for that matter, but he was hoping to fill that one major void in his Hall of Fame career.
“When it’s ready to happen, it’ll happen,” Mott said. “It’s only a problem if I let it bother me. Naturally, I have a desire to win one of these races.”
Those comments were made in 1999, some 12 hours before Mott would come agonizingly close to winning his first classic with 54-1 shot, Vision and Verse, who was beaten a head by 29-1 shot Lemon Drop Kid .
Mott not only would go another 11 years without winning a Triple Crown race, he would not saddle another horse in the Belmont until 2010.
Now, here he was, 11 years later to the day, sitting atop his pony in the exact same spot outside his barn, again reflecting on the Belmont Stakes, to be run later that afternoon, and his dubious record in the Triple Crown.
But this time was different. Mott felt “strangely relaxed” as he eyed a handsome chestnut colt walking past him into the barn. WinStar Farm’s Drosselmeyer had just stretched his legs with a solid gallop around the training track, and Mott, having watched the colt turn in a bullet five-furlong work in :59 3/5 five days earlier, couldn’t help but feel confident.
But, as far as winning his first classic, he wasn’t going to dwell on things he had no control over.
“If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be,” Mott said. “All I can do is keep trying. If it’s not this year I’ll try again next year. That’s the beauty of this game.”
As it turned out, there was no need to wait until next year, and the beauty of Thoroughbred racing on this day came in the form of Drosselmeyer’s circuitous run to victory in the “Test of the Champion” and the demure but contagious smile radiated by Mott. Decades in New York have not abated the trainer’s humbleness and South Dakota values.
The popularity of the Belmont result was evident by the number of congratulations directed at Mott as he walked through the crowd and eventually back to the barn. When he arrived at the interview room he looked at his cell phone, turned around, and smiled that sheepish smile. “Seventy-eight text messages,” he said. When he checked again at the barn, it was up to 101.
Lee Einsidler, who has horses with Mott, said, “This was one for the good guys.”
For owner, WinStar Farm, by winning the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) with the Todd Pletcher-trained Super Saver and the Belmont Stakes, they became the first owner since August Belmont II in 1896 to win two legs of the Triple Crown with two different horses trained by two different trainers.
For Mike Smith, who was riding Drosselmeyer for the first time, the Belmont victory completed his own personal Triple Crown, having won the Kentucky Derby with Giacomo in 2005 and the Preakness with Prairie Bayou in 1993.
Drosselmeyer, who was bred in Kentucky by Aaron and Marie Jones, is appropriately named, being by Distorted Humor out of the Moscow Ballet mare Golden Ballet. In Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, it was Uncle Drosselmeyer who gives Clara a Nutcracker doll as a Christmas present and then appears in Clara’s dream as a magical character who leads her into a world of fantasy and imagination. WinStar vice president and racing manager Elliott Walden named Drosselmeyer after Googling Golden Ballet and “playing around with her name.”
Uncle Drosselmeyer’s equine namesake led Mott into a world he had never experienced – one of white carnations and silver trophies steeped in tradition, where a Triple Crown victory existed only in the trainer’s imagination.
Mott’s quest for his first classic victory was only one of several human interest stories surrounding the 142nd Belmont Stakes, the majority of them gut-wrenching and heartwarming tales of life and death.
There was Uptowncharlybrown and the 59 partners in Fantasy Lane Stable, who had to deal with the sudden death of their trainer, Alan Seewald, in April.
An emotional Bob Hutt, who founded Fantasy Lane, had difficulty discussing the death of Seewald, with whom he had been inseparable for 25 years.
“I spoke with Alan at least three times a day for the past 25 years and we went through the ups and downs in life that all of us have to endure,” Hutt said. “I lost my real brother when he was 36 and Alan filled the void for a quarter of a century. He still lives inside me. He felt by the end of the year we’d have one of the better 3-year-olds in the country and hopefully his dream will come true and Charly will make him proud. Saturday is going to be very emotional for me and if you see me crying afterward you’ll know why.”
For one of the partners, Jennifer Weigand, Charly has proved to be a second chance at life. On the night of Sept. 10, 2001, Weigand was able to get some work done at home, and as a result went to work at Cantor Fitzgerald in the World Trade Center 45 minutes late the following morning. As she drove on the Long Island Expressway, she could see smoke billowing from the top of the World Trade Center, right where her office was.
“I lost so many friends and co-workers,” Weigand said. “Now that Charly has come along, it’s so exciting to live in this moment right now. Whether he wins or loses, I’m going to enjoy every second I can.”
The last time Andy Durnin was at the Belmont Stakes was in 2000. He had been on top of the world, having exercised that year’s Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus for Neil Drysdale. Although Fusaichi Pegasus was forced to miss the Belmont with a foot injury, Durnin was at the Belmont Stakes galloping Manhattan Handicap (gr. IT) starter Manndar for his good friend, trainer Beau Greely, for whom he would freelance.
While at Belmont, he learned that his boss, trainer Eddie Gregson, had committed suicide. The remainder of his stay at Belmont was “brutal,” as he attempted to deal with the loss of his friend.
“A few weeks ago I was at the top of the world and having the time of my life,” Durnin said at the time. “Now, none of it matters.”
After Gregson’s death, the trainer’s assistant, Alexis Barba, took over the stable. But she eventually lost all her horses and felt like she had “no purpose.” After managing a riding stable, she gradually began to get a few horses to train, eventually building up her stable to between six and nine horses. During that time, Durnin continued to work for her.
Now, 10 years later, Barba and Durnin were at Belmont Park for the Test of the Champion with Make Music For Me, with Barba attempting to become the first female trainer in history to win a Triple Crown race.
One of the top contenders for the Belmont was Preakness (gr. I) runner-up First Dude . Of all the great moments the son of Stephen Got Even has provided his owner Donald Dizney and his wife Irene, one of the greatest was having his 11-year-old granddaughter Grace help deliver the colt.
“We have a picture of Grace with her arm up the mare, feeling the foal’s nose and making sure his head was coming out first,” Dizney said. “We have the picture framed. She stayed right with it and when the legs appeared she helped pull them out. She won’t realize how special a moment that was until she gets a little older. Then she’ll be showing it to everybody. It is memories like this that will last forever.”
Finally, there was the naming of Toyota Blue Grass (gr. I) winner Stately Victor, owned by father and son Tom and Jack Conway. The latter is Kentucky’s Attorney General who is the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated Sen. Jim Bunning. It was 18 years ago that Jack’s best friend, Victor Perrone, was killed in an automobile accident.
Jack and Victor were best friends since kindergarten,” Tom Conway said. “Victor was working his way through the University of Louisville law school when he was killed. I wanted to name a horse after him, but it had to be the right one. It took 18 years, but I finally found the right horse. That’s why winning the Blue Grass and running in the Kentucky Derby and Belmont with a horse named after Victor has been so emotional.”
The main focus in this year’s Belmont was on trainer Nick Zito, who saddled morning line favorite Ice Box , winner of the Florida Derby (gr. I) and second in the Kentucky Derby, and Fly Down, a six-length winner of the Dwyer Stakes (gr. II). Zito had already won two Belmonts and had been second six times.
But of all the great stories attached to this year’s Belmont, it was Mott’s who would have the happy ending.
Mott recalled the early days when Drosselmeyer was sent to him after being purchased by WinStar at the Keeneland September yearling sale for $600,000.
“They sent me two Distorted Humor colts to me, and when we started breezing them short, it was the other colt, named Crystal Moment, who was the handier and quicker of the two. Drosselmeyer was a horse you could tell needed more ground, so I ran him two turns first time out. Shaun Bridgmohan had worked him at Saratoga one morning and came back and said, ‘Boy, I really like this horse.’”
It was Walden who first laid eyes on Drosselmeyer as a yearling early in the year before purchasing him in September, said WinStar CEO and president Doug Cauthen. “He was always a big, physical, impressive horse from the time we first saw him,” Cauthen said. “Elliott decides which horses go to which trainers, and when we shipped Drosselmeyer to Bill in Saratoga, also on that van were Super Saver and Rule.”
Following a pair of seconds and a third, all of them on either turf or synthetic, Drosselmeyer broke his maiden by six lengths in an off-the-turf race at Churchill Downs. He won his 3-year-old debut at Gulfstream, scoring by 1 ¾ lengths going 1 1/8 miles in allowance company. But in his next three races, the grade II Risen Star and Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds and Dwyer Stakes at Belmont, he ran into traffic problems along the inside each time, finishing fourth, third, and second, respectively.
All Mott wanted in the Belmont was a clean trip. It was decided by WinStar to make a jockey change, replacing Kent Desormeaux with Mike Smith. What boosted Mott’s confidence was the bullet five-furlong work May 31, in which Drosselmeyer galloped out a strong six furlongs in 1:12 2/5, pulling up seven panels in 1:26 and change.
What made the work even more impressive was the fact that Drosselmeyer was equipped with bar shoes, which he wore each morning for eight days leading up to the Belmont to protect his frogs, which had gotten “a little sore” and had to be soaked in hot water and Epsom salts twice a day.
“It looked like they were becoming a bit of a problem, so we put on a simple aluminum bar shoe to give him a little protection,” Mott said. “I think we could have run into some trouble had we not done it. As a trainer, that’s a gratifying part of it.”
Following his gallop on the morning of the race, the bar shoes were removed and Mott was happy with the condition of the colt’s feet.
“I think he’s good enough to be competitive in the Belmont,” Mott said. “He’s one of those horses that just keeps coming, but he may just have one run in him, so I’d like to see him get a clear run. The nice thing about him is that he has a good constitution; he eats well and looks good.”
As Mott spoke, Drosselmeyer finished his bath and was led into the barn. “Look at that hair,” Mott said with a big grin on his face. “Just look at that. Some feeding program, huh?”
Belmont day was hot and humid and the track had been playing slow all day. Ice Box was sent off as the 9-5 favorite, with Fly Down and First Dude co-second choices at 5-1. In attendance was former governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, accompanied by the real “First Dude,” her husband Todd.
First Dude, as expected, went to the lead from the 11-post, followed by Interactif to his outside and Uptowncharlybrown on the inside. Game on Dude, winner of the Lone Star Derby (gr. III), was in the hunt, about a length in front of Fly Down, with Drosselmeyer, who had been beaten six lengths by Fly Down in the Dwyer, to his outside.
First Dude continued to lead by a length through fractions of :24.15 and :49.19, with little change in the running order. Down the backstretch, Smith had Drosselemeyer well out in the middle of the track, as the pace slowed to a crawl.
“Billy said to get him into a nice comfortable rhythm,” Smith said. “That’s exactly what I did and he stayed in that cool rhythm all the way.”
The three-quarters was run in a sluggish 1:14.94 and the mile in 1:40.25. As they rounded the far turn, First Dude continued to lead by a length over Interactif, with Uptowncharlybrown, Game on Dude, Fly Down, and Drosselmeyer all bunched together.
Drosselmeyer went into the turn four-wide, which normally spells disaster at Belmont Park. But the colt continued to move up, reaching contention on the far outside. Fly Down, hemmed in by Drosselmeyer, had to wait for running room as the field hit the top of the stretch.
First Dude held on determinedly and still led by a length into the stretch. Interactif started to tire, but Game on Dude and Uptowncharlybrown were still right there, as Drosselemeyer launched a serious bid on the outside. John Velazquez finally was able to move Fly Down out for a clear run, but Drosselmeyer had all the momentum and collared First Dude inside the sixteenth pole and began edging away. First Dude made a strong late run, but it was Drosselmeyer by three-quarters of a length at the wire, with Fly Down just getting up by a neck for second over First Dude. Game on Dude was a half-length back in fourth, followed by Uptowncharlybrown, who was beaten three lengths for all the money. The final time of 2:31.57 was the slowest since Thunder Gulch’s 2:32 in 1995.
In an unusual post-race scenario, Uptowncharlybrown was disqualified from fifth and placed last when he returned minus an eight-pound weighted saddle pad, which he somehow lost on the backstretch. On top of that, the colt's saddle slipped during the race, according to Hutt.
Ice Box was never in the race, and returned soaking wet and covered with mud. With all the humidity and wind, the track remained loose and deep despite the extensive watering, and horses were laboring over it all day. It was later discovered Ice Box had displaced his palate.
“We never got a break with the track,” Zito said. “He’s by Pulpit, out of a Tabasco Cat mare, so you always have to be careful with him. Fly Down ran great, but got hemmed in by the winner. All in all, we have to be very thankful.”
Although he didn’t win any of the Triple Crown races, Zito accomplished the impressive feat of placing in all three legs of the Triple Crown with three different horses.
Dale Romans felt First Dude did all he could under the circumstances. “He had to break sharply from the outside and he ran hard all the way, but just couldn’t get it done,” he said, “I’m very proud of him.”
In addition to Ice Box displacing, Make Music For Me had a legitimate excuse, losing a shoe early in the race.
It’s been an amazing year for WinStar. In addition to winning the Kentucky Derby with Super Saver and the Belmont with Drosselmeyer, they’ve won the Illinois Derby (gr. II) with American Lion, the Sunland Park Derby with Endorsement, and finished third in the Florida Derby with Rule, who had earlier captured the Sam F. Davis Stakes (gr. III).
Following all the interviews, Mott headed straight to the barn, where he hugged assistant trainer Leana Willaford and went over to give Drosselmeyer, who was out grazing, a big pat on the neck, calling him a “champion.”
This was Mott’s greatest moment since the glory days of Cigar. “Those days were a blur,” said Mott’s wife Tina. “I didn’t have a husband for two years. The phone was ringing constantly and people were always waiting to see him. I hardly got a chance to talk to him, and when I did he was asleep.
“I had a great feeling today and kept a positive attitude. I just had this feeling it could be a fun day and a successful day. There wasn’t a lot of pressure, so Bill could enjoy it a lot more.”
Mott likes to joke about having already saddled a Belmont winner. In 1998, he saddled Victory Gallop for none other than Elliott Walden, who had broken his leg in a pick-up basketball game shortly before the race.
“I actually put the saddle on him,” Mott joked. “I just tried to repeat that effort again today and put it on the same way and it worked.”
The only one missing was Mott’s son Riley, who had recently graduated high school and was at a Dave Matthews concert at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center with a bunch of his best friends from school. One of them was Walden’s son Will, and the two of them listened to the live call on their car radio.
“For Will and me, who are best friends, to share this moment together was something I will never forget,” Riley said. “We couldn't stop high-fiving and hugging each other. It was one of the most memorable moments of my life. I still can’t believe we just won the Belmont; it seems surreal. Winning a Triple Crown race is a dream of anyone in the racing business. My whole family was raised in Garden City near Belmont Park, so that made it even more special to win it in our hometown. It’s going to take some time to sink in, but right now I’m ecstatic. The win couldn't have been possible without all the great help my dad has working with him -- everyone from our assistants to our exercise riders, grooms, and hotwalkers. It was a team effort for sure.
“I could not be more proud of my dad. He has accomplished so much in his career, but the Triple Crown races have seemed to elude him. Some people say he’s not really a Triple Crown-type trainer, but today he proved he can train any type of horse. I know it meant a lot to him to win this race. He works long, hard hours seven days a week for moments like this. If anyone deserves a big win like the Belmont Stakes it’s him.”
Riley’s 12-year-old sister Olivia was at the track, and Mott wrapped his arms around her shoulders and held them there for several seconds. Olivia is not close to the horses and the sport the way Riley is, but as she says, “I like to support my father.”
She did take a little friendly dig at her brother after he sent her a text, replying, “Ha ha, I’m here and you’re not.”
As Mott held her, she looked up at him and asked, “Are you happy?”
Mott, who has a way of making a short response sound meaningful, smiled at her and simply said, “Yep.”
But in backstretch life, celebrations are brief. Tomorrow comes quickly and early. As darkness began to fall on Belmont, Mott turned to Willaford and said, “Well, should we do the training book for tomorrow?”