Riley Mott in the saddle at Oaklawn Park (Robert Yates)
Phil Janack/Gulfstream Park
HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla.— Riley Mott is no stranger to being at Gulfstream Park for its Championship Meet, the nation’s premiere winter racing destination, having worked a decade for his father, Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, after graduating college.
But the 31-year-old Mott’s attachment to South Florida goes back much further.
“I was born in Hollywood so it’s pretty much home for me. I spent pretty much every winter of my life other than when I was in high school and college down in Florida,” he said. “Last year, having to skip Florida hurt a little bit but I always planned on coming back. I’m really excited to be here for the winter.”
The 85-day Championship Meet, highlighted by the $4.5 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational Series Jan. 27 and $1 million Florida Derby (G1) March 30, opens Friday, Dec. 1. Mott has 37 stalls at Palm Meadows, Gulfstream’s satellite training facility in Palm Beach County, and will maintain a small string at Oaklawn Park, where he raced last winter.
“We’ll have the majority of our horses here,” Mott said. “They gave me a good allotment [with] room to grow. I definitely hope to keep the barn full throughout the meet.”
Mott, who currently has 50 horses in training, has Town Barber entered as the first also-eligible in Race 11 Saturday, an optional claiming allowance for 3-year-olds and up sprinting five furlong on Gulfstream’s new turf course. At the recently concluded Sunshine Meet, he had one win and two seconds from eight starters.
“We’ll send about a dozen or 15 to Oaklawn to have a presence there. I had a good meet there last year and that’s where we started, so I wanted to go back there,” Mott said. “But the plan was always to make my way back to Florida going into my second year once I had the numbers and everything like that.”
Mott officially launched his career last Nov. 1. His first starter came the next day, finishing sixth with American Tattoo at Churchill Downs. A Group 1 winner in his native Argentina that was Grade 2-placed in the U.S., American Tattoo won the 2019 H. Allen Jerkens at Gulfstream for Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher.
Mott had 56 starters at last winter’s Oaklawn meet, with seven wins, seven seconds, four thirds and $613,043 in purse earnings. This year he has 19 wins, 19 seconds, 15 thirds and a bankroll of $1,415,386 from 159 starters.
“The first 13 months went by extremely fast; at the same time, it felt like it drug on for a while. It was a little bit of both,” he said. “I’m really happy how the first year went. I think we accomplished some good things and cultivated a really good team.”
Mott discovered just how important that is while dealing with the challenges he has faced regarding his 2-year-old daughter, Margot, who is at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis undergoing treatment for a malignant brain tumor. Mott and wife Megan also have a son, William, who was born in June.
“Between my string in Florida and my string and Arkansas and visiting Memphis, I’m basically on a plane every three days making the triangle between the three places. If that’s what I need to do to take care of my family and take care of the horses, that’s what I’ll do,” Mott said. “It doesn’t really bother me. I just want the family to be comfortable and in good shape and [know that] the horses are well taken care of.
“I can’t say enough about the team that I have at the barn. My schedule now is just a testament to the help and staff that I have. I wouldn’t be able to do it without them,” he added. “Most people would say the same thing, but particularly in this situation when I can’t be there every single day in one specific location, just having such a great staff that know exactly how we do things, I can’t say enough about how important that is.”
Mott said one of the things that has helped the family cope is developing relationships with other families that are dealing with the same, or a similar, illness.
“Being at St. Jude, which is arguably the top cancer research hospital in the world, you meet people that not only have children who have cancer but children that have a very similar cancer to what our daughter has,” Mott said. “It’s a very specialized type of hospital so we’re meeting families that are going basically the same thing we are.
“For example, we randomly met this young couple the other day. Their story was almost identical to ours, about how they diagnosed it, what their symptoms were, just everything that they’ve been going through. They’re like our clones, basically,” he added. “Just being able to talk to people that know what you’re going through is really helpful, and it’s really a tight-knit community at St. Jude.”
Mott said the family is encouraged by his daughter’s progress, and he has felt empowered by the entire experience.
“She had a lot of trauma from the initial brain surgery so it really took a lot out of her mentally and physically. We’re seeing a little bit of improvement every day, mentally and physically, which is really good to see. Hopefully that counts for something,” Mott said. “I would not wish what we’re going through on any parent or enemy I have, if I have any at all. You wouldn’t wish it on anybody. But the tragedy that we’re facing, a lot of good has come from it, if that makes sense. The outreach that people have extended our way – friends, family and particularly the horse industry. They’ve really rallied around our family. People we don’t even know and some people we haven’t even met have gone out of their way in trying to help us.
“It’s really inspired me to want to help other people that are in similar situations. We’ve learned who our really good friends are and learned that there are people in our corner that we had no idea were in our corner,” he added. “We’ve been able to raise a lot of money to donate to St. Jude for cancer research, so that’s another major positive. It’s been really great. It’s been a learning experience, but at the same time our hearts are absolutely broken and we’re hoping for a good ending. That’s all you can really do. You’ve just got to believe that you’re doing everything in your power and the rest is up to the man upstairs, whoever that may be.”
Naturally, Mott patterned his training program after his father, and for good reason. Bill Mott, who turned 70 in July, is one of the most decorated trainers in Thoroughbred history and the youngest ever inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame at age 45 in 1998.
“It was almost identical, really, which I guess says a lot about my dad’s program and how he kind of groomed us, myself and the other assistants, for the next step,” Riley Mott said. “There was a bit of a learning curve as far as maybe running your own business and all that stuff financially, but as far as the structure and the training of the horses and everything that goes with it, it was like we never missed a beat really. It says a lot about how well we were trained for the moment.”
Though he had been around the game since birth, Mott said it wasn’t until middle school that he began to think of a career in racing.
“I think very briefly I wanted to be in the NHL, but when I didn’t grow after the seventh grade, I quickly realized the only thing I was meant to do was to be a horse trainer,” he said. “Basically, that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. It’s been pretty cool to complete my first-year training. There are times when the business is tough and you always want to win a little bit more, but at the end of the day I kind of have to pinch myself and say, ‘Ok, look. I’m fulfilling my dream right now, and I’m happy no matter what.’ It’s been great.”
Mott doesn’t worry about following in his father’s giant footsteps; in fact, he is embracing the challenge.
“Incredibly big shoes to fill for anybody, but I think that’s just more motivation for me to try to reach the same heights that he’s reached,” he said “I don’t see why it would be a bad thing to try to have a similar career to him. You don’t want to get your hopes too high some people might say, but why wouldn’t you try to emulate what he’s done? I’ve been lucky to have a front-row seat to how to go about running an operation like his and how to treat people and keep good relationships. I’m always going to try to do as well as him.”
Mott is pointing Sheri Greenberg, Staghawk Stables, Tom Reiman and Ronald Johnson’s 3-year-old filly Unifying to the $125,000 Sugar Swirl (G3) for fillies and mares 3 and up sprinting six furlongs Dec. 23.
Purchased for $32,000 as a yearling in September 2021, the daughter of Union Rags represents Mott’s first winner (Nov. 2, 2022 at Churchill), first stakes runner (second in the Year’s End Dec. 31, 2022 at Oaklawn) and first stakes winner (June 11 Leslie’s Lady at Ellis Park).
“She’s checked off a lot of the boxes for us. She’s like the first horse we ever bought, first winner, first stakes winner. She’s special to us,” Mott said. “She’s back in full training at Palm Meadows. She’s had a couple works there and we’re targeting the Sugar Swirl. Loosely that’s what we could come back in, but if I feel like she’s not totally ready we’ll wait for the next one. If she does really well the next four weeks or so, I think that’s kind of a good starting point for her. Bringing her to Gulfstream was always in the back of my mind. They have a really solid filly and mare sprint stakes schedule, so it gives us a lot of options.”
Mott has four horses entered on Sunday’s Gulfstream card including James Karp’s 5-year-old mare Sand and Sea in the $100,000 Orange Blossom, an overnight handicap for fillies and mares 3 and up going a mile and 70 yards on the all-weather Tapeta. Sand and Sea has two wins, two seconds, two thirds and $105,193 in purse earnings from eight starts this year.
“This summer was a little bit slow for us just because we had a lot of 2-year-old maidens, so we were pretty much running everything in 2-year-old maiden special weights, which are really tough. Those races are pretty competitive no matter where you go,” Mott said. “I think at this point in the year we’ve kind of figured a lot of them out, whether they want turf, dirt, short or long, whether they’re maiden special weight company or need a little bit of class relief.
“I think going into the Championship Meet we’re able to spot them a little better than we were able to this summer, as well as having a little bit of diversity in the older horse division,” he added. “Hopefully we can spot he horses realistically and get in the win column a little bit.”