DARK CLOUDS LIFTED DRAMATICALLY and leaves glowed in an autumn palette at celebrated Belmont Park, just east of New York City. But nature's most breathtaking display came at 3:10 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 28, when a 5-year-old thoroughbred with the same name as George Burns's favorite prop began to accelerate in the Breeders' Cup Classic, a 1¼-mile race designed to be the sport's season-ending Super Bowl. Drawing off from 10 rivals, the glistening bay stallion Cigar blazed to the finish in record time for the race (1:59 2/5). As the crowd of 37,246 roared in approval, track announcer Tom Durkin shouted, "Here he comes! The incomparable, the invincible, the unbeatable Cigar!"
Minutes later, cantering to the winner's circle, Cigar swished his tail in apparent delight. Waiting for him was his proud trainer, bankerly Bill Mott, 42, who, with his charge, was making racing history that day—plus, of course, a nice bit of cash. For winning the Classic, his 10th victory in as many starts in 1995, Cigar earned $1.5 million. That brings his career winnings to $5 million, second only to Alysheba, who earned $6.5 million before he was retired to stud. (Eighty percent of Cigar's money goes to his owner, Gulfstream Aerospace founder Allen Paulson, 73; Mott and jockey Jerry Bailey each get a 10 percent cut.)
Cigar came into Mott's life in January 1994, when Paulson brought him to the trainer because, he says, Mott was "a horseman...on top of his game." Cigar wasn't on top of his. The horse, then 4, hadn't run up to expectations the season before. At first, Mott raced Cigar as the horse's previous trainer had, on turf (grass) tracks because Cigar's sire (Palace Music) had been a good grass horse. In those first four races, the best Cigar did was finish third twice.
Then a year ago a small decision changed everything: Mott tried Cigar on dirt at New York City's Aqueduct racetrack. Since then, for reasons even Mott can't fully explain, Cigar has been a horse for the ages. Just now, Cigar's future is uncertain, beyond a planned foray to the Middle East in March to run in the $4 million Dubai World Cup, the sport's richest race. Cigar may find Dubai's loose, sandy track strange, but Mott is confident. "Cigar just wants to beat other horses," he says. "That's why he's as good as he is."
Mott has been passionate about horses most of his life. Growing up in Mobridge, S.Dak., the youngest of three sons of veterinarian Tom Mott and his wife, Olive, Mott entered into equine affairs at 14. That year his father bought a few thoroughbreds, and Mott spent a summer helping their trainer. The next year, Mott paid $320 for a thoroughbred mare named My Assets. She quickly won a race in Ft. Pierre, S.Dak. "I was hooked," he says.
After graduating from high school in 1971, Mott apprenticed for two trainers, at tracks around the nation. At 25, he opened a stable at Detroit Race Course. He now trains about 100 horses for more than 20 owners.
Mott tends to think and talk horses almost exclusively. So back in 1983 his first date with Tina Kotowicz, sister-in-law of a trainer friend, was a little strained. "It was hard for me," says Tina, now 39. "I would try to say something about current events, and Bill would turn the conversation back to horses." But the two kept seeing each other, and Mott came to enjoy the company of someone outside the sport. "It was refreshing," he says.
Still, racing has dominated their lives since their 1985 wedding in Kentucky—complete with a horse-drawn carriage. Just reining in the memorabilia Mott brings into the family's five-bedroom colonial in Garden City, N.Y., is a chore. "I try to keep the horse stuff in one place," Tina says. That's the den, where trophies fill a ceiling-high bookcase. The Motts and their two sons—Brady, 8, and Riley, 3½—migrate three times a year, spending winters near Hallandale, Fla.'s Gulf-stream Park and summers in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Though Brady liked the $2 an hour Mott paid him last summer to clean stalls, Riley has more passion for horses. "Every morning he's up at 5, wanting to go with me," says Mott.
Despite her husband's successes, Tina worried about him before the Breeders' Cup. "He was tense and tired," she says. Mott was concerned that the horse wouldn't like the track, made muddy by nightlong rain. But there were some auspicious signs just before the race. "We were saddling up and the rain stopped, and we saw three rainbows," he says. "Then Tina gave me a good-luck kiss. It worked."
MARIA EFTIMIADES at Belmont Park
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