By Ed McNamara
The best horse doesn’t always win the Kentucky Derby, but two years ago, he did. For 22 minutes, anyway.
That’s how long it took Churchill Downs’ stewards to disqualify Maximum Security for interference and award the victory to runner-up Country House, a 65-1 shot who was bothered hardly at all in the incident. He just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and on his 10th try, Bill Mott finally accepted the most coveted trophy in American racing.
That he needed the only on-track DQ of a Derby winner was bittersweet to the max for someone who at 45 in 1998 became the youngest trainer ever to make the Hall of Fame. The morning after the Derby always is a glorious hangover for the winning connections. Not this time.
“I feel terrible that I have to apologize for winning,” Mott said as Country House poked his head out of his stall. Fifteen feet away, the blanket of roses hung over a low concrete wall. Instead of documenting the colt’s every move, video crews surrounded Mott. It was a weird scene.
“I hate to sit there and apologize, saying something as foolish as ‘I’m sorry I won,’ because I don’t want to give the owners the impression that I’m unhappy with winning. Because I’m not.
“I’m thrilled. I’m thrilled with the horse and with everybody who’s worked with him, and I think they deserve the win. It’s just such an unusual way to have to go to the winner’s circle and win a Kentucky Derby. I don’t think anybody wants to win that way.”
Country House began coughing two days later, skipped the Preakness and Belmont, and never ran again. On Valentine’s Day 2020 came the announcement that the horse who got very little love had been retired because of laminitis. His legacy will be an asterisk for being handed a triumph he didn’t earn.
Mott, 67, is an all-time great, and if he retired tomorrow his place in history would be guaranteed. He’s not going anywhere, though, except maybe back to Louisville this spring to try to win the big race the right way. He has two promising colts who might get there, Candy Man Rocket and Nova Rags, who ran 1-2, respectively, last month in the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. Candy Man Rocket will be back there Saturday as the favorite in the Tampa Bay Derby.
A bullet workout of 48 3/5 seconds at Payson Park in Florida convinced Mott that Candy Man Rocket is in top form.
“He went smooth as silk. I liked the way he did it. I’m very pleased with him,” Mott said. “The Tampa Bay Derby has been on our minds since he won the Sam F. Davis. Any time you get a horse that runs well over that racetrack, you have to give it consideration.”
The Tampa Bay Derby is one of Saturday’s three Derby preps, along with Aqueduct’s Gotham and Santa Anita’s San Felipe. I’ll try to offer some useful insights on them and on the Big ‘Cap, the 1 1/4-mile Santa Anita Handicap.
$400,000 Tampa Bay Derby (G2), 1 1/16 miles, 3-year-olds
It’s hard to get past Candy Man Rocket, who was clear by 2 1/2 lengths in mid-stretch of the Sam F. Davis and was taking it easy before holding on by a length. He earned his first stakes trophy in only his third start.
“He’s still inexperienced,” said Riley Mott, Bill’s son and assistant trainer. “Sometimes when they hit the front too early, they tend to wander.”
Candy Man Rocket will be fitter and less green, and he proved he can handle a deep, quirky surface that causes problems for some horses. He won’t pay much but he looks formidable.
- Candy Man Rocket 2. Unbridled Honor 3. Promise Keeper
$300,000 Gotham Stakes (G3), mile, 3-year-olds
The last horse to hit the Gotham-Derby double was Secretariat way back in 1973. A big performance in a one-turn mile in March rarely translates to success at 1 1/4 miles in May, but a Gotham victory is worth 50 qualifying points and a spot in the Derby starting gate.
This Gotham field is interesting, though, with representatives from top trainers Bob Baffert, Chad Brown, and Doug O’Neill.
Brown’s Highly Motivated hasn’t run since late November and has never been beyond 6 1/2 furlongs, but his running style [mid-pack closer] could give him the edge in a field loaded with speed. Baffert’s Freedom Fighter and O’Neill’s Wipe the Slate are very fast, and they might wear each other out up front.
The obligatory Baffert caveat: Freedom Fighter was a game second last time in the 7-furlong, Grade 2 San Vicente at Santa Anita. If he gets loose on the lead, he could be gone.
- Highly Motivated 2. Freedom Fighter 3. Wipe the Slate
$300,000 San Felipe Stakes (G2), 1 1/16 miles, 3-year-olds
In a case of dueling Bafferts, take your pick. Likely favorite Life Is Good is undefeated in two starts. Stablemate Medina Spirit’s only loss in three races was by a diminishing three-quarters of a length to Life Is Good in the Grade 3 Sham Stakes on Jan. 2.
This will be Life Is Good’s first race since, while Medina Spirit won by a neck Jan. 30 in the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis. The runner-up that day, Roman Centurian, looks like the main danger to the Baffert duo.
Life Is Good has been working like a demon, and a two-month layoff is nothing for a Baffert horse. He should win at odds-on in a race I’ll be watching but most likely not betting.
- Life Is Good 2. Roman Centurian 3. Medina Spirit
$400,000 Santa Anita Handicap (G1), 1 1/4 miles
For generations this was one of America’s most prestigious races, but not anymore. With the Pegasus World Cup and Saudi Cup earlier in the year and the Dubai World Cup in late March, there just aren’t enough top older horses to go around.
The Big Cap started in 1935 and has been run continuously except for three years (1942-44) during World War II. Its 2018 winner, Accelerate, also took that year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, and this year’s marquee horse is undefeated Maxfield. The sixth career race for the often-injured 4-year-old presents three big challenges — first time beyond 1 1/16 miles, first time in California and high weight of 124 pounds.
Wise handicappers warn against betting a horse to do something it’s never done, especially a favorite, which Maxfield will be. I’ll take a shot with strong finisher Express Train, who ran like one down the stretch to take the Grade 2 San Pasquale last time over 1 1/8 miles at Santa Anita.
- Express Train 2. Maxfield 3. Coastal Defense