Enjoying the Calm Before the Storm

One doesn’t expect to be thrust into the world of the Breeders’ Cup on an October morning at Saratoga, but my wife and I were treated to a special surprise during our off-season visit recently. ~ Steve Haskin

Enjoying the Calm Before the Storm

By Steve Haskin


It is October on the Oklahoma training track in Saratoga. A small number of horses are still training against a backdrop of color from the hints of fall foliage along the frontside of the track. Those who  reside year-round in their homes on Fifth Avenue that back right up to the backstretch can hear the sound of horses’ hooves outside their back windows at the crack of dawn each morning as if it is the middle of August. Most mornings are bright without a cloud in the sky, and there is a sense of solitude, with few onlookers along the rail and only a small amount of horses getting in their final days of training before the early November closing of the track for the year.

The Saratoga meet is long gone, but there is still something magical about these final days sitting on your back porch with a cup of hot coffee to warm the autumn chill, as horses, feeling good in the crisp mountain air, go about their morning training and then walk right past your back gate on their way back to the barn just as they did in droves from mid-July to early September.

The vast majority of barns are empty, as are a number of the homes on Fifth Avenue that are occupied only during the race meeting. My wife and I are in Saratoga visiting our friends, the Freedbergs, who are up for several days selling five weanlings at the Fasig-Tipton fall mixed sale.

This is a world far removed from the activity some 3,000 miles away at Santa Anita, where Breeders’ Cup activity is beginning to pick up, with several top horses from the east, including Classic favorites Arcangelo and White Abarrio, already there and working for the big race.

But this October is no ordinary one on the Oklahoma backstretch. About 150 yards from our back gate is Bill Mott’s barn, which actually is a major Breeders’ Cup hot spot this year. Mott, whose permanent residence is in Saratoga, brought his horses up here from Belmont Park to train before shipping to California on October 25. We’re not talking about a few nice horses. To us this was our Breeders’ Cup as we enjoyed the intimacy of spending quiet time with the favorite for the Dirt Mile (Cody’s Wish), possible favorite for the Sprint (Elite Power), and major contenders for the Turf (War Like Goddess), Mile (Casa Creed), Juvenile Fillies (Just F Y I), and Juvenile Fillies Turf (Gala Brand). His final horse is Caramel Swirl, who won the recent Grade 2 Gallant Bloom Stakes on a rare double disqualification. It was a bit surreal seing only two horses, Cody’s Wish and War Like Goddess, waking past the Freedbergs’ back gate (see top photo).

Left to Right, War Like Goddess, Elite Power, Cody’s Wish.

Cody’s Wish and Elite Power will be looking for back-to-back Breeders’ Cup victories, while War Like Goddess, winner of the last two runnings of the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic against the boys, will be looking to improve off her unlucky third-place finishes in the last two Breeders’ Cup Turfs. The tough as nails 7-year-old Casa Creed should be a force in the Mile coming off his second straight victory in the Grade 1 Fourstardave Stakes at Saratoga. And if anyone can knock off the undefeated Tamara in the Juvenile Fillies it could be Just F Y I after her impressive score in the Grade 1 Frizette Stakes. Gala Brand could be tough if she runs back to her victory against the boys in the Grade 3 With Anticipation Stakes.

So you can say Mott is loaded this year. But you would never guess it. Never one to engage in braggadocio or boast about the strength of his horses, Bill converses with you, sometimes about subjects other than racing and it has never been just about press and trainer in all the years I have known him.

Bill and I go back to the early ‘90s when I would bring my daughter Mandy to the barn to visit horses like Paradise Creek and Fraise. In 1996 I flew overnight from the Eclipse Awards dinner in San Diego to Fort Lauderdale on owner Allen Paulson’s private jet to see Cigar’s 6-year-old debut in the Donn Handicap. On the plane were Paulson, his wife Madeleine, their dog Oliver, Bill and his wife Tina, Jerry Bailey and his wife Suzee and my esteemed colleague and mentor Joe Hirsch. I remember Bill saying to me after we took off in his typical dry sense of humor, “Well, what do you think, Steve? This is a tough assignment, but I guess somebody’s gotta do it.”

A few months later I found myself spending mornings with Bill at Nad al Sheba Racetrack in Dubai for the inaugural running of the Dubai World Cup. No one had a clue about Cigar’s foot problems that he was dealing with. But Cigar came through with a gutsy victory and the Dubai World Cup was here to stay

All through 1996 my wife and I would bring Mandy to Bill’s barn to visit Cigar. One of my prized photos is of Mandy, Bill, and Cigar, as well as the one of Mandy, me and Cigar that Bill insisted on taking. On one visit, Bill put Mandy up on his pony and led her around the shed row and up and down the path outside the barn.

Later that year I was at Cigar’s emotional farewell at of all places the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden. After the speeches, Jerry Bailey dismounted and Cigar was led around the arena by Bill, as a flurry of flashbulbs popped all around the Garden. Bill turned the horse over to assistant Tim Jones, who continued to lead him around. Then the lights in the arena went dark, and a single spotlight shone down on Cigar. When a solitary trumpet began playing “Auld Lang Syne,” I have to admit I lost it. Soon after, the entire band joined in, adding to the emotional impact and ending the proceedings with a flourish. Standing on the floor of the arena in the dark, I tried to wipe away the tears before the lights came back on. When they did, I turned around, and almost everyone in the Garden was wiping their eyes.

I also have to mention that in all my years in racing I have never seen a more gracious loser than Bill. I will never forget being back at the barn with him following Cigar’s heartbreaking defeat in the Breeders’ Cup Classic in his career finale.

Moments earlier, Cigar had walked off the track for the last time. Shafts of light beamed down on him from an amber sky, creating a setting that was meant for a triumphant farewell. But Cigar’s weary legs and cracked feet, that had carried him some 25,000 miles across the United Stakes and to Dubai, could not carry him those final few inches.

Back at the barn, Cigar stood facing the back of his stall, as if he knew he had lost. Allen and Madeleine Paulson stopped by for a final visit before heading off to dinner, but Bill remained. For several minutes, he stared almost hypnotically into Cigar’s stall. When he spoke, his voice couldn’t hide the emotions that were obviously building up inside him. This was no time to be dwelling on defeats or having any regrets that Cigar’s career did not end in triumph.

“There’s nothing I can say about Cigar that can tell you how I feel about him and the whole experience,” Mott said in a quiet monotone voice. “There’s no reason that getting beat a short head would make me feel any differently about him. I’d be pretty damn greedy if I did or if I had any ill feelings about anything. When we decided to run him again this year I knew as a trainer that trying to have a repeat year was going to be a tough task come Breeders’ Cup time. He just lost that little step, that little turn of foot, and that’s been the difference. Before, he could have overcome having to go five-wide. Today, he just couldn’t…he couldn’t overcome it.”

Just then, 82-year-old Georgia Ridder, owner of the victorious Alphabet Soup, came over to Bill, who congratulated her.

She replied, “Congratulations on the greatest horse of many years. It was just our luck today.”

“Well, you had a good day and I’m happy for you,” Bill said. “I hope you have many many more.”

In 1999 on the morning of the Belmont Stakes, I was with Bill as he sat atop his pony outside his barn reflecting on the big race. Bill had never won the Belmont, or any jewel in the Triple Crown 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,” he said. “It’s only a problem if I let it bother me. Naturally, I have a desire to win one of these races.” Later that day, Bill’s horse Vision and Verse, a 54-1 shot, was beaten an agonizing head by 29-1 shot Lemon Drop Kid.

It was 11 years later on Belmont morning that Bill again sat on his pony in the exact same spot outside his barn reflecting on his dubious record in the Spring classics. But this time was different. Bill felt, as he put it, “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 Bill couldn’t help but feel confident. But, as far as winning his first Triple Crown race, he wasn’t going to dwell on things he had no control over.

“If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be,” Bill 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.”

There was no need to wait for next year, as Bill won the Belmont later that day with Drosselmeyer. It did not change him in the slightest. 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 Bill as he walked through the crowd and eventually back to the barn. When he looked at his cell phone he 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 had horses back then with Bill and now has Casa Creed, said, “This was one for the good guys.”

But the Belmont victory was short-lived. Drosselmeyer did not run again that year and was a disappointment the following year and Bill’s exciting 2-year-old filly Royal Delta wasn’t fulfilling the promise she showed when she blew away a maiden field by 12 lengths in her career debut. Bill was discouraged, but then things began to turn around when Royal Delta won the Alabama by 5 1/2 lengths and Drosselmeyer began to return to form. It all culminated in the Breeders’ Cup when Bill won the Distaff with Royal Delta and the Classic with Drosselmeyer at odds of 14-1.

Afterwards he thought back to those winter months and said, “Early in the year we couldn’t win. The horses were running poorly in Florida, and Elliott (Walden of WinStar Farm) called one day and asked me, ‘Are you OK?’ He was concerned because I’m sure he knew we were trying, but things just weren’t going well; everything was going wrong, like To Honor and Serve running two disappointing races and then having to be put on the shelf. But, again, this business, like life, just turns around and here we are winning two of biggest races of the year on the same weekend.”

And finally there were all those mornings at the Oklahoma training track over the years, discussing everything from the state of racing to his feelings about winning the 2019 Kentucky Derby with 65-1 shot Country House, who became the first horse in history to be awarded the Derby victory on a steward’s disqualification.

So now here we are on an October morning in 2023, with Bill preparing to head to California still feeling the effects of a recent hip replacement. In a few days the media will converge on his barn at Santa Anita looking not only for quotes and background on his contenders, but the human interest stories behind several of them. And yet here we were having these magnificent horses all to ourselves on a brisk autumn morning in the tranquil setting that is Saratoga in October.

The following morning I wished Bill good luck and safe travels and headed back home to Connecticut. In an era of top horses being retired at 3 and fewer and fewer star older horses Bill remains one of the true old school trainers who knows how to keep horses going strong for many years. He heads to the Breeders’ Cup with two 2-year-olds, three 5-year-olds, a 6-year-old, and a 7-year-old. And he recently retired his old warrior Channel Maker, who won the Grade 2 Bowling Green Stakes this year at the age of 9.

As if that wasn’t enough of a Breeders’ Cup fix, on the opposite side of Bill’s barn are the horses trained by Christophe Clement. Among them are Breeders’ Cup hopefuls Big Invasion (Turf Sprint), winner of six stakes, and Carson’s Run (Juvenile Turf). Standing outside Clement’s barn with assistant trainer Miguel Clement were Dean and Patti Reeves, owners of Big Invasion, who also were up for the sale. “Big Invasion is doing great,” Dean said. “Both Miguel and Christophe are really happy with how he’s doing.”

Carson’s Run, winner of the Grade 1 Summer Stakes at Woodbine and owned by West Point Thoroughbreds, will get his share of publicity, being named after Carson Yost, who suffers from the same genetic disorder as Cody Dorman, for whom Cody’s Wish was named.

So, here were nine Breeders’ Cup horses stabled close to each other just a stone’s throw from “our” house, training over what was as close to their own private track as any trainer could ask for. Several people have asked me if I’m going to the Breeders’ Cup this year. I can now answer them succinctly, “I’ve been.”


Photos courtesy of Steve Haskin, Breeders’ Cup Archive, and Saratoga Daily Gazette.

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.



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147 Responses to “Enjoying the Calm Before the Storm”

  1. Jiffy says:

    Without even realizing it, I always thought of Saratoga as perpetual summer because that’s the only way I ever saw it. I live in Vermont and I know very well about the different seasons in this part of the country. But when I saw a Barbara Livingston photograph of the track in winter, I felt a moment of shock because I couldn’t imagine the place being snowed in. Similarly, I never thought much about Saratoga in autumn. But your excellent column made me want to think a lot about it. The peace and beauty you describe would make anyone want to go there in autumn, and the thought of great thoroughbreds working out almost in your backyard is mind-boggling. I wish you many happy mornings watching them.

  2. Lynda King says:

    Friday Breeders Cup

    Juvenile – This is basically (IMHO) between Muth and Noted.

    Juvenile Fillies – Tamara

    Juvenile Turf Sprint – Dreamfyre and No Nay Mets

    Juvenile Turf – Tibre River and Mountain Bear.
    Air Recruit probably best chance for America

    Juvenile Fillies Turf – The Justify progeny are red hot on turf in Europe. This is hard one for me to call.

    Possible changes after post positions.

    This is based on pre-entries, final field not set of fourse.

  3. Lynda King says:

    No word yet on Geaux Rocket Ride.

    Report popped up on Blood Horse about an hour ago that he was having joint fusion surgery to stabilize the leg. If I am not mistaken that is dame surgery that Echo Zulu and the Player had.
    He is being a good patient, laying down a lot to take weight off the injured leg.

  4. Matthew W says:

    Practical Move 8-1 works for me….Tamara will be even …. Clairiere 5-1 looks good, so does Arizona bred Desert Dawn, around 30-1 thank you very much! The Breeders Cup–where you only need to be right once or twice, to go home with fat pockets!…

  5. Lynda King says:

    I would like to apologize for my comment about Getoix Rocket Ride.
    This is not an excuse but rather an explanation.

    There have been 3 highly stressful situations to arise in the course of 5 days. The third one was the result of a letter that I received along with several others on Saturday.

    I had taken a break from conversations with my neighbors and came to this site and saw almost immediately the post about Geroux Rocket Ride. I honestly did not realize how serious the inner sesamoid ligament damage was.

    Last evening I read what Mr Mandella has said.

    Geroux Rocket Ride has a chance to survive this because of Mike’s quick thinking.

    • Ms Blacktype says:

      Lynda, I’m obviously not Steve, but no need to apologize — at least not to me. In my comment below, I had changed “potentially fatal” to “serious”, without noting that it’s the risk of infection that’s often fatal. I agree this is a very dicey situation for the horse.

      • Ms Blacktype says:

        I hope your stressful situations resolve soon!

      • Lynda King says:

        I have mixed feelings about GRR. Not wanting to siund like Debbie Downer, but things are just not looking up .Guess we will know more after the surgery. Hopefully there will be something positive.
        Mage is out. Soiked a fever, did not clean up his food last night.
        On a positive note, Equinox won! If you get a chance watch a replay of the race.

    • I have said this many times before they need to find a way to get the tractors and water trucks off the dirt racing surfaces. I feel they are leaving ruts under the surfaces.

      • Lynda King says:

        Heavy farm equipment can pack the soil and the sub surface

      • Lynda King says:

        I know this from being raised on a farm. My Dad called it the ” pan”.
        Is that what is happening on these old dirt tracks? Not for me to say, not a race track “engineer”.
        Weather extremes can make it worse (heavy rains followed by drought conditions).
        Do not know about the West Coast. Here on the Esst Coast we had heavy rains for weeks from January to late Spring, then a period of drought.

  6. Bill Dawson says:

    Most likely winner of a race on BC Friday, Endlessly (BC Juvenile Turf, 1 Mile).
    Most likely winner of a race on BC Saturday, Gina Romantica, (BC 1 mile Turf).
    Just my opinion.

  7. Ms Blacktype says:

    Geaux Rocket Ride injured a foreleg; out of the Breeders Cup Classic. Extent of injury is unknown until they do X-rays. What a shame!

    • Matthew W says:

      It’s bad..

    • Steve Haskin says:

      Open condylar fracture and ligament damage. At Mandlla’s barn. Discussing next steps

      • arlingtonfan says:

        DRF reports surgery will be done tomorrow at a clinic on the track grounds. So sad this happened.

      • Ms Blacktype says:

        Steve, that’s just awful. Open fractures in horses are very serious.

        • Lynda King says:

          All fractures are serious of course.
          An open condylar is not as serious as fractures of the sesamoids.
          The surgery is often performed while the horse is standing. Plate and two screws.
          Recovery usually 90 days.
          Caused by high speeds which put stress on the bone.
          Some horses can return to performance, however in the case of GRR, he will probably be retired which be in the colt’s best interest.
          Just got on social media and saw this.
          I picked him to be in top 3 in thd Classic.
          Prayers for a successful surgery and recovery.

        • Lynda King says:

          Infection is the big concern.

      • Sarah says:

        Uh oh… an open condylar fracture with ligament damage sounds all too much like the kind of injury the best vet surgeons repair only to watch their work get ruined by recovery stress, colic, or laminitis– a la Ruffian, St. Nicholas’ Abbey, and Barbaro. Some do horses do survive bad breakdowns, like Mill Reef, but so many don’t.

  8. Davids says:

    What a Cox Plate, fantastic finish, Romantic Warrior wins!! Tears of joy a’plenty here. Hong Kong connections win.

    • Steve Haskin says:

      Cant wait to watch it.

    • Steve Haskin says:

      Interesting pedigree note . His sire has these two names in his pedigree….Sassafras andorenzaccio. The only two horses to defeat Nijinsky.

      • Steve Haskin says:

        Oops Lorenzaccio

      • Davids says:

        Steve, those two defeats of Nijinsky were absolute shocks at the time especially after Nijinsky had won the English Triple Crown. The Coolmore lads think City of Troy can do the same, then ‘possibly’ off to Saratoga for the Travers Stakes. What a buzz that would be? Racing is all about dreams.

  9. Matthew W says:

    David’s Tonight is the Cox Plate, Ollie’s final— Damien Oliver not as well known, in the States, is an all-time great rider..hanging things up…

    • Matthew W says:

      Just saw Tom Kitten, what a big beautiful runner! At Randwick….Monster win….

      • Davids says:

        Matthew did you watch the Manikato Stakes, Imperatriz was brilliant!! The wind is ferocious here.

        • Matthew W says:

          David’s I’m in SoCal, we’re getting the ferocious Santa Ana Winds on Sunday and Monday, good thing they didn’t come next weekend….too bad Geaux Rocket Ride won’t be going ..

          • Davids says:

            Terrible news about Geaux Rocket Ride, let’s hope for the best. Good news about the Santa Ana winds though. Of course, it’s as still as a grave here today. No hay fever.

            Do you think they will add more sand for the Breeders’ Cup races now?

            • Matthew W says:

              I dont know…thats two bad breakdowns in BC works….

              • Lynda King says:

                Who was the other one?

              • Davids says:

                Thanks Matthew, I appreciate the information you are able to offer us. Fingers crossed everything goes well during the Breeders’ Cup races.

                • Matthew W says:

                  Santa Ana Winds ext two days will clean the air for next weekend! Euros arrived yesterday, will be on the turf Tuesday …three notable horses that have looked good on the track–Clairiere, Practical Move, Arabian Knight have looked good ..

                  • Davids says:

                    I’ve been watching Breakfast at the Breeders’ Cup the past two days which is fun to watch but it’s nothing like being there. It’ll be interesting having a look at the European horses who are going from a cold Autumn to a warm California.

                    I thought White Abarrio has looked good as well but agree with you especially, Arabian Knight.

  10. Larry Buzby says:

    Steve : Another in a long line of great columns. As a long-time Summer Saratogian whose track job was Gone with the Pandemic, I must say I’m envious of such a great, and well-deserved, couple of days with Bill and his BC contenders.


  11. Matthew W says:

    Golden Pal’s first book was 293!….Second highest book was Epicenter….Man O War’s first book was 15….

  12. Lynda King says:

    Jess’s Dream (Curlin out of Rachel Alexandra) retired from stud, gelded and will be trained as a track pony at the Ocala Training Center.
    In his brief career at stud he did sire winners. Was top ranked in Florida and Southeast.
    Thank you Stonestreet for giving him a chance at a third career.

  13. Lynda King says:

    Paddington out of BC due to fever. Retired to stand at Coolmore.

    • ChiefsCrown says:

      Just read on another blog, Go Rocket Ride was pulled up by Mike Smith breezing this morning @ SA. Hear anything about this?

  14. Matthew W says:

    White Abarrio worked this AM…looked awesome…can he duplicate his Whitney form? Some good horses put up huge performances, Quack 72 Hollywood Gold Cup….Frosted Met Mile….Beholder Pacific Classic…as good as they were they never quite ran another race like that, so there’s that, but Whitey looked pretty solid this morning..

  15. Davids says:

    Mike Repole’s ‘New Alliance’ is one of the best things I’ve read to save US racing in decades. Best of luck, let’s hope it grows shoots.

    • Steve Haskin says:

      I just sent him a long email wishing him good luck.

      • Davids says:

        Steve, Mike Rapole seems the right man at the right time. He has the drive, energy, and knows racing from every angle.

      • Lynda King says:

        I too wish Mr Repole much success in his new venture.
        I do hope he takes time to get input from people like you and the racing fans and not be totally dependent on the “professionals”.

    • Bruce says:

      I give Repole a lot of credit for taking this issue on! I sure hope he makes some headway in making the sport stronger and better!
      Kudos to Mr. Repole and the people he will be working with!

    • Ms Blacktype says:

      Davids — me too! Someone with clout has to try to get the powers that be in racing to talk to each other seriously. I especially mean the track managers, many of whom are too high and mighty for my taste. (Except in New York, where they are at the mercy of state politicians.)

      • Davids says:

        Ms Blacktype, that’s exactly right and the constant conflict and bickering steals away the headlines from the success of the horses. It’s the horses/jockeys that draw in the fans initially while the punters keep the sport afloat.

      • Dittos to all the comments above about Mr Repole and the New Alliance he is forming and wishing nothing but success in this important endeavor.

  16. Davids says:

    Looks as though it’s going to be a beautiful day here in Melbourne for the Cox Plate, around 75f, while the track conditions should be perfect. Sometimes the wind at Moonee Valley can spring up to a fierce gale very quickly though.

    Who is going to win the most prestigious race run in the Australasia Realm (Australian/New Zealand)? The 2022 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf winner, Victoria Road, might have as good a chance as any of them. Good Luck and enjoy the races.

    • Steve Haskin says:

      Hopefully I can watch it after the fact on YouTube.

      • Davids says:

        YouTube should have it Saturday morning your time. It’ll be run 2 am early Saturday morning. You could chance your hand at getting 7plus . com .au using a VPN and say you’re from Melbourne. Ha ha

        I’m lucky here I can watch all the US races live from around 4 am onwards, ET, which is ok. Santa Anita is even better.

    • Matthew W says:

      I remember the great Aussie miler Sunline winning The Cox Plate by eight lengths….

      • Davids says:

        Yes, Matthew, Sunline was a great mare but she was a Kiwi champion that raced predominantly in Australia. New Zealand breeders often don’t get the accolades because their better runners inevitably race mostly in Australia after showing early promise.

        Before the Melbourne Cup started having an influx of international runners the New Zealand breds dominated the race. Better stamina lines.

        • Matthew W says:

          Sunline won two Cox Plates despite preferring one mile, won 25 of 35 and faced the best…one of my favorite all time horses and really somewhat forgotten, like the American filly Bold And Determined…..

          • Davids says:

            So true, so many great names ‘vanish’ as the generations change. In your mind, your favorites stay as fresh as yesterday.

    • Ms Blacktype says:

      Davids, I was just in coastal MAINE, where the weather was similar! Small world, isn’t it?

      • Davids says:

        Yes, Ms Blacktype, I suffer from hay fever and the wind here stopped me from going to the track which is sold out today.

  17. Peg says:

    Thank you for showcasing the very classy Bill Mott. Back when I was grooming horses, Bill Mot was just getting started. I saw him at the Fair Grounds. He was known as a class act and an excellent horseman. His horses always looked like a million dollars. His barn was know for the perfection he kept it in. It was known that it was not easy to get a job in his shed row. He was really picky about who put hands on his horses. I worked in the test barn for a couple of years. All his people were very professional and were really conscientious about their horses. This was early 80’s, and he didn’t have that big national presence then. But he was widely know for being a class act and running a first class shed row.