Bill Mott gets it.
The Hall of Fame trainer knows how fickle the court of public opinion can be during the run-up to the Kentucky Derby, how it takes only one less-than-stellar race for a horse to go from buzz of the backstretch to wanna-be contender.
So when To Honor and Serve — the graded stakes winner many say represents Mott's best chance at winning his first Kentucky Derby — finished a non-threatening third in his 2011 debut in the Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes, Mott knew he would have to shift from fielding questions about how good the colt could be to doling out excuses.
"It is quite noticeable that a lot of people jumped off the bandwagon," Mott said earlier this week. "And that's their prerogative. But I think I'm going to wait till after this weekend before I get off the bandwagon."
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Of the eight horses scheduled to contest Sunday's Grade I, $1 million Florida Derby, Live Oak Plantation's To Honor and Serve might have the most to both gain and lose out of Gulfstream Park's prestigious 11⁄8-mile contest.
Prior to Feb. 26, To Honor and Serve was widely hailed as the biggest threat to reigning juvenile champion Uncle Mo. His pedigree and wins in the Grade II Nashua and Remsen Stakes last year put him at or near the top of most people's list of leading 3-year-olds.
But it wasn't just that the son of Bernardini was beaten in the Fountain of Youth by fellow Florida Derby contender Soldat. It was how.
After rating just off a fast but not crazy pace, To Honor and Serve didn't respond in the stretch and was 63/4 lengths behind the winner in third.
Considering that his horse hadn't started since his gate-to-wire victory in the 11⁄8-mile Remsen on Nov. 27, Mott's goal was not to have every last screw tightened on To Honor and Serve in February.
Still, it wasn't an ideal 3-year-old debut.
"I thought he folded up a little bit earlier. I mean, when he left the quarter pole, he was already flat," Mott said of the Fountain of Youth effort. "I don't think Johnny (jockey Velazquez) was completely discouraged about him, though. He said he rated very well down the backside and, when it was time to go to the horse on the lead, he said, he went right to him ... and the other horse had a little something to offer and kind of turned us back.
"I'm hoping, this coming weekend, we can turn that around and put in a much stronger, braver, better effort."
Mott has been cranking up To Honor and Serve in the mornings, and his last drill was a bullet 4-furlong move in :49 flat last Sunday at Payson Park.
Not only does Mott say he will be leading a physically fitter horse, but the bay colt — who will have a new rider in Garrett Gomez on Sunday — might have learned a hard lesson. And after winning three of his first four starts by a combined 143/4 lengths, Mott said To Honor and Serve needed it.
"I think it was good for him to be challenged. I think that's ideal," Mott said. "I think all horses need to find out that they can't just roll up to one and go by them easily every time they do it.
"I think, when you've stopped on a horse, you let them down ... it's like they go to sleep on you a little bit," Mott said of returning a horse to racing after a layoff. "He was a little wound up for about a week after (the Fountain of Youth), it kind of stirred him up a little bit, but that's probably what he needed. Mentally, I think he'll be a little more tuned in to racing than what he was going into the first one."
Although all of his three wins have come on the front end, To Honor and Serve will probably have to settle and rate Sunday because Hutcheson Stakes winner Flashpoint is expected to be setting the early fractions.
Regardless of the outcome, Mott wants to go back to explaining To Honor and Serve's potential rather than his shortfalls.
"I want to see an improved race. I don't want to be making this excuse for him next week," he said. "You know, win, lose or draw, I want to see a much better effort from him."