When it comes to training horses, Bill Mott is not one to rush matters.
Mott, who was the youngest trainer ever to be enshrined in racing’s Hall of Fame when he got in in 1998 at age 45, prefers his horses develop one slow step at a time.
And if that means skipping the Kentucky Derby because one of his horses isn’t quite ready, not quite mature and seasoned enough, so be it. Mott is fine with waiting for the big races later in the calendar, Derby be damned.
But on the afternoon of Jan. 26, with a steady rain falling and the track at Gulfstream Park reduced to slop, something happened that would alter Mott’s way of doing things.
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Hidden Scroll, a previously unraced 3-year-old, blazed through quick opening fractions en route to a dazzling 14-length victory, demolishing the field of 11 rivals as if they were all plodding nags.
“Look at this!” exclaimed track announcer Pete Aiello as the colt turned into the stretch and pulled away without jockey Joel Rosario ever once raising his whip or asking for more. “Wow!”
The performance shocked even Mott. While Mott knew all along that Hidden Scroll was a good horse, he never imagined him to be that good. Not 14 lengths good.
“We were pretty excited about him and high on him going into the race,” Mott said. “I don’t believe it was any surprise for us that he won. But to see that he won in the fashion he did was a bit of a surprise, and awesome, to put it mildly.”
Under normal circumstances, the trainer would have placed Hidden Scroll on a one-rung-at-a-time schedule, entering him next in an easier allowance race of some sort before wading into the deeper waters of stakes races.
But not this time. Not with a 3-year-old like that. Not with the May 4 Derby looming on the horizon.
And so Mott, in consultation with owner and breeder Juddmonte Farms, are rolling the dice.
They have entered Hidden Scroll not in an easier allowance, but in Saturday’s Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park. After just one race, a race so spectacular that it left Mott and Juddmonte with little other choice.
“This isn’t a normal situation for us,” Mott acknowledged.
Last year, Justify became the first horse in 136 years to win the Kentucky Derby without ever having raced as a 2-year-old. Just like Justify, who went on to sweep the Triple Crown, Hidden Scroll didn’t race at 2.
But his debut race as a 3-year-old was so impressive that it raised the possibility of lightning striking twice. What are the odds that rare feat occurs two years in a row?
Hidden Scroll’s romp wasn’t just visually impressive, with Rosario “wrapping up” — throttling down, in other words — the final sixteenth of a mile in the 1-mile race.
The colt’s winning time of 1:34.82 had disbelieving racetrack regulars taking out their stopwatches and re-timing the replay to make sure the tote board reading was accurate. It was.
To put the figure into context, older and more seasoned stakes horses covered the same mile distance in 1:36.22 five races later on that day’s card. (In racing, a full second is the rough equivalent of about 5 lengths, meaning Hidden Scroll’s time was about 7 or 8 lengths better).
It’s possible that the track that day became slower as the rain continued.
It’s also possible that Hidden Scroll might be the proverbial “mudder,” a horse that improves in sloppy going — going that some horses detest. But what are the chances that Hidden Scroll was the only horse of the 12 in the race to take a liking to the wet surface?
“It’s always a little different when they run over that type of racetrack,” Mott said. “You don’t know if some of the other horses didn’t handle it quite as well or he was just that good. But I think the (final) time would lend itself to being a pretty good race.”
Saturday’s Fountain of Youth Stakes should help to answer a few questions.
Is Hidden Scroll a budding superstar, racing’s next great thing? Or is he a one-race wonder, the beneficiary of a quirky track and, perhaps even, a field of inferior challengers his first time out?
But if Hidden Scroll performs to billing as the 9-5 program favorite to win the Fountain of Youth, anything is possible. He would likely race one more — perhaps the March 30 Florida Derby at Gulfstream — before moving on to the big Derby at Churchill Downs.
“It’s that time of year and I think he’s doing well enough we’re going to give him this one shot and see where it takes us,” Mott said. “I would say if the result is not good, then we probably take two steps back and give him a normal schedule.”
And Mott can go back to his normal routine.