Horse racing is steeped in rich tradition and passed down from generation to generation. In its celebrated 150th running this year, the Belmont Stakes signifies the rich ancestry of the sport, as the bloodlines of great past champions and legendary horses flow strongly in this year’s contenders through generations of breeding.
The stamina handed down from past Belmont Stakes winners to the 2018 hopefuls gives us inklings if this year’s runners will excel at the 1 1/2-mile distance of the “Test of the Champion” at Belmont Park.
As Justify tries to become the 13th all-time Triple Crown winner this Saturday, we can try to discern his distance capabilities by looking at past Belmont Stakes winners in his pedigree, including A.P. Indy (1992) in his fourth generation and Native Dancer (1953), Nashua (1955), Damascus (1967), and Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew (1977) all in his fifth generation.
The famous Belmont Stakes winners of yesteryear show up in most of the pedigrees in this field, including Hofburg, the likely second choice in the wagering. Hofburg’s damsire is Touch Gold, winner of the Belmont in 1997. Deeper in his pedigree, A.P. Indy shows up on both sides in his third generation, which means that Seattle Slew is on both his sire and dam sides in his fourth generation. To top it off, the great 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat resides in Hofburg’s fifth generation.
Hofburg also has another type of pedigree supporting him: his Hall-of-Fame trainer, Bill Mott, was mentored from a lineage of fellow legendary trainers. Bill has worked closely to pass down lessons learned from his rich history to his son, Riley, in Hofburg’s day-to-day training. The Mott family work ethic and attention to detail is a major reason why Hofburg has a good chance to upset Justify’s Triple Crown attempt.
Prepping a Belmont Winner
With over 4,800 career wins and three Eclipse Awards for Outstanding Trainer (1995, 1996, and 2011), Bill Mott is one of the most successful trainers in recent history. He was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1998 at the age of 45, becoming the youngest thoroughbred trainer ever inducted.
His lone Triple Crown-series Classic win came in the 2010 Belmont Stakes when Drosselmeyer was able to get a steady trip behind the first flight early and swing wide to take over in deep stretch.
Mott said that the training techniques used with Drosselmeyer are very similar to how he is preparing Hofburg.
“I think the routine with the horse is probably the same way,” he said. “A lot of times, your horse either has the natural stamina (or not). You have to build that stamina, but they have the ability to have that stamina, and we think with Hofburg, we’re lucky enough to have a horse that has that. That’s the same it was with Drosselmeyer, he was a horse that would run on 10 or 12 furlongs.”
Riley Mott, 26, has steadily worked his way up in the barn over the past six years and has been an assistant trainer for his father for the past four, during which he worked closely with Grade 1 winners, and has been there every step of the way with Hofburg.
“I think the number one thing is that (Hofburg) just continues to improve,” said Riley. “Every race has arguably been better than the (last). Although he finished seventh in the Kentucky Derby, I think he had a little bit of an excuse with the trip that he had. He wound up running a spectacular race, considering the circumstances.”
Hofburg, the Grade 1 Florida Derby runner-up, has been training at Saratoga since the Derby, taking a five-week layoff into the Belmont. He’s had three strong breezes in company over the Oklahoma training track and both Motts are pleased with the way that he’s been training.
“He’s given us the signs after the race that he’s moving forward off of (the Derby),” said Riley.
“Another thing is his mental state,” Riley continued. “Mentally, he isn’t bothered by much. He takes everything in extremely well. You can tell he’s of a different class just from the way he acts. In the Derby in his fourth career start, with all the commotion, leading up to the race and on race day with all the rain and 150,000 people, he didn’t turn a hair the entire time. It’s just a testament to the horse, and we were extremely proud in how he acted through that whole process.”
The Motts believe in Hofburg’s stamina, class, and development, but being able to beat the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Justify may be more dependent on the pace of the Belmont Stakes.
“You’d like to be closer than 10 lengths to the pace,” said Bill. “We got to see how the draw comes out and who goes in there. If a horse like Justify is able to ‘walk the dog,’ then he’s going to be hard to catch. Either you’re going to have to be closer to him, or there’s going to have to be a legitimate pace in the race for him to get beat.”
The elder Mott has seen a few races and different pace scenarios unfold in his day, having gone out on his own as a trainer 40 years ago. In the 1970s, Mott worked under and was mentored by fellow Hall-of-Fame trainer Jack Van Berg, who accumulated 6,523 wins in his career and recently passed away in December 2017. He is well-known for training the 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Alysheba, along with training the 1984 Preakness winner Gate Dancer on his way to winning the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Trainer that year.
Along Van Berg’s lineage, Jack learned from his father, Marion, who was also a Hall of Fame trainer. Marion was the trainer of record of almost 1,500 winners and won 4,691 races as an owner, leading the nation’s owners in victories 14 times, including 11 in a row from 1960-1970.
“We’re used to looking at pedigrees on horses, and I guess you can go back and look at the pedigrees on people and see there’s been father-and-son teams, and actually whole families, that are involved in racing,” said Bill. “It certainly does get passed down.”
Hofburg’s lineage in his fourth and fifth generations include Triple Crown winners Seattle Slew and Secretariat, and his trainer’s lineage goes four generations deep with class in the Van Berg and Mott families.
Asked what he learned most from Van Berg, Bill responded, “I think it’s work ethic and trying to pay attention to details. If you show up here every day and you’re on-time and you work hard, there’s a lot of opportunities for young trainers trying to make it. If they work hard, pay attention, and use common sense, I think the sky is the limit.”
“I see (those qualities) in a lot of young trainers,” he continued. “There’s a lot of good, young people that are coming around in the business. There are a lot of intelligent, young trainers with a lot of enthusiasm, and I think Riley is right in there in the mix with them. I think he’s passionate about the business. You have to be passionate about the business and horses. If you like horses and you like the challenge of getting a horse ready, then it’s not really even a job.”
Making His Own Name
Riley has plans to go out on his own one day and is learning what it takes to be successful and reiterated the same sentiments as his father about hard work.
“That’s the number one thing I’ve learned from my dad is work ethic,” he said. “Nothing is just given to you in this game. It’s not a matter of me taking over his stable one day, I don’t want it to be like that. I want to show people that I can work hard and do the things that I need to do to be successful on my own without my last name.”
Riley’s enthusiasm exudes through his bright smile walking around the barn and while on horseback, as he’s outwardly respectful and appreciative to all of the team around him.
“I’ve been lucky enough to be around some great people under my dad,” he said. “It’s been a great experience. We have a lot of great people that surround us, whether it be our veterinarians, our other assistant trainers, blacksmiths, the foreman and the grooms, there’s a lot of people to learn from on a daily basis, not just my dad. The combination of that makes our operation what it is.”
This is the first time that the father-son team has brought a horse to the Kentucky Derby and now Belmont Stakes together, so perhaps they’ll make history together on Saturday to continue adding to their family heritage.
“Having Riley being part of it and having him here as part of the team, he’s one of my assistants and I got several good assistants,” said Bill. “He’s very much a team player and does his part, and naturally, he’s excited and interested in doing a good job and maybe having a Classic winner.”