When Mobridge native Bill Mott got started in horse racing in South Dakota in 1968, there was no way to know he would become one of the sport’s most successful and respected trainers.
But that’s exactly what’s happened to the 59-year-old Mott, the turf master who is best known for his work with legendary horse, Cigar.
Like famed trainer D. Wayne Lukas, Mott got his start at the old Park Jefferson track in North Sioux City, which opened as Tri-State Park in 1955 and hosted the South Dakota Derby before closing its doors in 1982. Mott took up training as a 15-year-old high school student, while Lukas was working as a trainer and high school basketball coach. Mott was the son of a veterinarian, and one of his earliest victories came at 16 when his horse, Kosmic Tour, won the South Dakota Futurity at Park Jefferson.
“Becoming a veterinarian was third or fourth on my list of careers,” Mott told the New York Times in 1995. “Maybe I should have become a vet. I might have had an excellent career by now.”
He sold some pigs and cattle to buy a horse, which led to some success and enough earnings to buy another horse, and a legend was born. Gleaning as much information from Lukas as he could, Mott left South Dakota when he graduated high school and worked for trainers such as Bob Irwin and Jack Van Berg.
He eventually set out on his own and became one of the top trainers at Churchill Downs, where clients included Madeleine and Allen Paulson, the owners of Cigar. With Jerry Bailey as jockey, Cigar captured 15 consecutive wins to secure its legend and catapulted to fame by soaring to victory in the 1995 Breeders Cup Classic.
In 1996, Cigar kept the magic alive by winning the $4 million Dubai World Cup in the United Arab Emirates. Though it may seem strange that South Dakota produced one of the world’s top horse trainers, the sport is still active in this state.
Later this month at Stanley County Fairgrounds in Fort Pierre, quarter horses and thoroughbreds will find their footing during a six-week racing period that moves to Aberdeen’s Brown County Fairgrounds in May.
“It’s one of the best-kept secrets around,” says trainer Bob Johnson of Lemmon.
“With the weather this time of year, sometimes it’s tough to get a lot done. If it’s hard for you to be out there, it’s hard for the horses, too.”
When its climate cooperates, South Dakota serves as a proving ground for horses, trainers and jockeys. About 70 percent of the horses are South Dakota-owned, while others come from neighboring states. According to historians, horse racing in the Fort Pierre area dates back to when Plains Indians would gather near the river to show off their horses’ strength and speed.
South Dakota was also a proving ground for standout jockeys Earl Sande of Groton, Travis Dunkelberger of Lennox and trainer Steve Asmussen, who was born in Gettysburg.
Asmussen recently moved ahead of Jack Van Berg (6,417 wins) into second place for most lifetime training wins. The 47-year-old Asmussen had 6,418 wins as of March 28. The late West Virginia-based trainer Dale Baird is the world’s all-time leader with 9,445 wins over a 46-year career. Sande won the Triple Crown in 1930 aboard Gallant Fox.
Mott and Asmussen have won three of the last five Eclipse Awards for the nation’s outstanding trainer.
|Horse Racing Season|
|Stanley Country Fairgrounds|
|At 1 p.m. in Fort Pierre|
|Brown Country Fairgrounds|
|At 1 p.m. in Aberdeen|