In his 44 years training thoroughbreds, Hall of Famer Bill Mott has learned not to get too carried away with wintertime dreams of winning the Kentucky Derby.
“I try to be realistic about it,” he said this week.
Still, Mott understands why there has been so much excitement surrounding Hidden Scroll, a colt that has a racing career that has lasted barely 94 seconds.
This weekend Hidden Scroll (9-5) is the morning-line favorite against 10 other colts in the $400,000 Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes, a virtual win-and-you’re-in Derby points prep at Gulfstream Park, Florida. Saturday’s listed post time is 5:32 p.m. EST.
Five weeks ago Hidden Scroll looked like a powerful hydrofoil putting away rowboats and carrying jockey Joel Rosario to a rainy, 14-length debut victory. That was good enough for bettors to make him the 5-1 second choice in Kentucky Derby futures at William Hill.
“I am not surprised that he won; I was a bit surprised the way he won it,” Mott told VSiN by phone from Florida. “He had been working very well. We had never touched him with the whip. I guess (Rosario) tapped him on the shoulder one time just to kind of keep him going. But that was really about it.”
As much as he would prefer to tamp the hype, Mott admitted, “I’m trying to keep it all in perspective, but I’m quite excited about the horse.”
From Mott, that is may as well be jumping up and down. The reputation that precedes him is that he does not try to force every 3-year-old he has into the Kentucky Derby. When Hofburg finished seventh for him last May, it was Mott’s best result in six Derby tries with eight horses. It was also his first time sending a horse to the Derby in nine years.
This spring Mott may have a stacked deck. In addition to Hidden Scroll, he also has Risen Star runner-up Country House and promising maiden winners Mucho and Tacitus.
“This is certainly the deepest group we have had,” Mott said. “We have gone into it a couple different times where we thought we had some chances. Actually, Hofburg may have been my best chance yet, because I felt the 10 furlongs was going to be good for him, and it was. He wound up having some traffic problems in the race. Otherwise I believe he would have been on the board. You not only have to have a good horse, you have to have an awful lot of luck.”
Mott said that Country House (30-1 at William Hill) is most likely starting next in the Louisiana Derby on March 23. After a runner-up finish in last summer’s Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga, Mucho (35-1) makes his 2019 debut as the 1-5 morning-line favorite in Friday’s second race at Gulfstream Park, a six-furlong allowance race worth $75,000. A maiden winner in his second start last fall at Aqueduct, Tacitus (60-1) figures to make his first start as a 3-year-old next Saturday in the Tampa Bay Derby.
But there is no question that the 3-year-old star of Mott’s barn is the bay colt bred and owned by Juddmonte Farms and sired for $40,000 by Hard Spun out of the broodmare Sheba Queen. Hidden Scroll’s damsire is Empire Maker, the 2003 Belmont Stakes winner for Juddmonte. So there is speed on the top side of Hidden Scroll’s pedigree and a stayer’s stamina on the bottom.
This weekend Hidden Scroll graduates to two turns after his jaw-dropping run Jan. 26 in a mile’s worth of Gulfstream slop. Among his rivals Saturday, forward-running Vekoma (7-2) and Global Campaign (10-1) are each 2-for-2, and Global Campaign has a win over the very same 1 1/16-mile layout as the Fountain of Youth. Signalman (9-2) has never failed to hit the board in five races, including his win in the Kentucky Jockey Club last fall at Keeneland.
“(Hidden Scroll) was on the lead all the way when he broke his maiden,” Mott said. “When you get a new group of horses, you’ve got to see what the difference in the pace scenario might be and what the setup is going to be. Then the horses and the jocks take it the rest of the way after they reached the halfway point.”
There is also the matter of who will be aboard Hidden Scroll this spring. Mott is well aware that Rosario, who has the ride again Saturday, is also the regular jockey on Game Winner, Bob Baffert’s 2018 juvenile champion that is the 9-2 futures favorite at William Hill.
“I don’t think any of the riders are willing to commit too far with some of these horses this time of year,” Mott said. “I don’t even know if (Rosario) has given a commitment all the way through the Derby on (Game Winner). I felt it was probably the wisest thing to do to keep him on for this next start anyway, and we’ll see where we’re at.”
As much as Hidden Scroll’s lone race and his 104 Beyer Speed Figure stand out among this year’s 3-year-olds – and they do – Mott is keenly aware of the small sample size.
“We have got to find out what his limitations are on distance and how he is going to react when we get him in with a different class of horse,” Mott said. “I guess when you have been doing it as long as I have, you try to be realistic about the whole thing.”
Handicapping the Fountain of Youth
Breaking from post 7, Hidden Scroll may not have his way setting the pace the way he did in his debut. Vekoma, Global Campaign, Epic Dreamer (20-1), Frosted Grace (30-1), Union’s Destiny (30-1) and Gladiator King (50-1) all may want a piece of the early lead.
Second in the Breeders’ Futurity, Signalman (9-2) will settle in mid-pack, but there are still questions about whether he has overachieved, especially after finishing third at 67-1 in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Champagne runner-up Code Of Honor (6-1) breaks from the rail and also figures to be just behind the first group, but he has been unreliable getting out of the gate cleanly.
The biggest question is which of the early pace-setters will have enough fuel left in the tank turning into the stretch. Hidden Scroll should be there as should Global Campaign. The thought here is that Vekoma, getting Lasix for the first time, may be well-positioned to pounce on a breakdown of the early speed if Manny Franco bides his time on the backstretch.
Bourbon War (10-1) is the wild card here. Since he is sired by Tapit, there could be an ornery side that shows up Saturday. Trained by Mark Hennig and ridden by Írad Ortiz Jr., he won lower-class races on either side of a wide trip to finish fourth in a better-than-usual Remsen last autumn at Aqueduct. If he sits just off an honest pace, Bourbon War stands a serious chance to finish in the money.
In the value hunt I am turning to both Global Campaign to emerge from the speed clash and Bourbon War to come from out of mid-pack. I will not throw out Hidden Scroll, but I will try to beat him.
I will key my Fountain of Youth bets around Vekoma and box in Hidden Scroll, Global Campaign and Bourbon War. And as always I will hope the bigger price finishes first.
Racing notes and opinions
Three fatal breakdowns between Saturday and Monday mornings at Santa Anita led The Stronach Group and the California Horse Racing Board to close the main track to training for 2½ mornings this week to try and figure out what if anything was amiss. According to statistics posted by the Blood-Horse’s Jeremy Balan, 19 horses have died on the track at Santa Anita since the current meet began Dec. 26, all but one coming from injuries. Those are more than the entire last two years. Six were in main-track races and seven in training on the dirt, including Grade 1 winner Battle Of Midway last Saturday morning. Santa Anita brought in a soil expert from the University of Kentucky to literally get to the bottom of a track that has absorbed an unusually high amount of rain this winter. After his inspection, Dr. Mick Peterson told the Santa Anita public-relations staff that “this surface is in fact 100 percent consistent and ready for training and racing.” So was the track subpar before Peterson got there? Was this just a run of bad luck? Were the horses that broke down unfit to train? Those questions may never be answered.
Add Santa Anita: What was particularly galling through this process was the CHRB’s silence, rationalized by a statement to Balan citing restrictions written into California’s open, public-meeting law. The sophistry of that justification belies common sense. This was as big a crisis as the CHRB could be expected to handle without other state agencies getting involved. That it decided to clam up was both irresponsible and deplorable. If the board does not want to come clean to the taxpaying public with its assessment of what is happening at Santa Anita, then it is time to question its very $13.5 million annual existence.
Remember when Instagrand and Roadster were the only two horses posted last summer in the 2019 Derby futures at the Wynn Las Vegas? They were given long breaks from training that will end in the next eight days with 3-year-old debuts in unexpected places. After first being pointed into next weekend’s San Felipe at Santa Anita against Game Winner and Improbable, Instagrand is being diverted east to the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct, also next Saturday. Surprising Breeders’ Futurity winner and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile runner-up Knicks Go will also be in the race. After having what his trainer Baffert said was minor surgery to correct a breathing problem, Roadster (7-5) is the morning-line favorite in Friday’s eighth race at Santa Anita. The $80,000 allowance race over the two-turn mile includes two other Derby hopefuls – Roadster’s stable mate Dessman (9-5) and John Sadler’s maiden winner Nolo Contesto (9-5).
A 10-1 sixth choice in the Derby futures at William Hill, Maximus Mischief suffered a soft-tissue injury and is no longer in the running for the Triple Crown. Trainer Butch Reid suspected something was amiss Sunday morning, when the Remsen winner had a poor workout in preparation for the Fountain of Youth. “The horse didn’t breeze too good,” Reid told Gulfstream Park’s media department. “He just kind of went through the motions.” Maximus Mischief was 3-for-3 before finishing a beaten 4-5 favorite last month in the Holy Bull Stakes.
Anyone who was carefully watching the Derby futures at William Hill saw something curious last weekend. Instagrand moved from a 6-1 second choice to a 3-1 favorite – and then back to 6-1. Did someone throw down a big bet on him? Was that bet somehow voided? Did the bookmakers realize no one would touch Instagrand at 3-1? No, no and no. According to Nick Bogdanovich, director of trading for William Hill U.S., “It was a mistake. Never was supposed to be moved from 6-1.”
What is probably the last season in training for the world’s top thoroughbred Winx is turning into a pathetic display of farcical, paid workouts that are Group 1 races in name only. So unwilling are rival horsemen to try and beat her that trainer Chris Waller has called on five of her stable mates to fill all but one place in the field for Saturday’s $429,417 Chipping Norton Stakes, a one-mile turf race at Royal Randwick in Sydney. Bidding for her 31st consecutive victory, the 7-year-old Winx (1-10) will be odds-on to win the Chipping Norton for the fourth time. Happy Clapper (6-1), the only non-Waller horse in the field, is the second betting choice. A rain-softened course will host the field that is scheduled to race Friday at 11:40 p.m. EST.
Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com and more frequently during coverage of big races. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott helps preview Saturday’s Fountain of Youth Stakes, where his impressive maiden winner Hidden Scroll is expected to be the favorite. Former horse breeder and “Tonight Show” bandleader Doc Severinsen talks about his longtime love of horses and the Kentucky Derby winner that he could have owned – but he let it get away. The feature Racehorses by the Letters considers the best horse starting with “Q,” Twitter feedback gets a reading, and a commentary is offered on the recent fatal injuries at Santa Anita. The RFRP is also available at providers such as Apple Podcasts, Google Play Podcasts and Stitcher.