When Ron the Greek joined Bill Mott's barn last year, he was a puzzling underachiever on an eight-race losing streak. He had frustrated top trainers Tom Amoss, Tom Albertrani and Peter Walder, and now it was up to Mott to get the best out of him.
Not surprisingly, the Hall of Famer pulled it off. This year Ron the Greek has become a force, winning the Santa Anita Handicap and Stephen Foster, prestigious Grade I races for older horses. Mott was asked how he turned a plodder into a Horse of the Year candidate. "We waved the magic wand over him," he joked.
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Mott was 45 in 1998 when he was the youngest trainer to enter the Hall of Fame, and he developed champions Cigar, Theatrical, Paradise Creek, Ajina and Escena. Ron the Greek could be his sixth, and winning Saturday's Grade I, 11/8-mile Whitney Invitational Handicap at Saratoga would elevate him more.
Although many consider Mott a genius, he's no ego tripper. He downplayed his role in the 5-year-old's transformation.
"I think it was just a matter of timing," he said. "He's a big, strong horse who probably wasn't going to be at his best at 2 and 3. He'd run well before. I probably just got lucky and got him at the right time. I never had any idea he'd get to where he is right now."
Neither did anybody else. Ron the Greek's debut for Mott last July at Saratoga was nothing special, a second in an optional claimer. Mott rested him until November, and he won two minor stakes at Aqueduct while showing tactical speed for the first time. That was a tipoff that something good was happening.
Ron the Greek is 4-for-7 with three seconds for Mott, including 2-for-4 this year with earnings of $872,932 for Adam Wachtel, Nils Brous and Jack Hammer.
"He's gone to battle a few times against top competition and won," Mott said. "He wears them down. He keeps grinding away, and if the pace is fast enough, he's going to be a factor at the end."
Ron the Greek (post 6) is the 3-1 morning-line favorite for the $750,000 Whitney. One of his 2012 losses was to the excellent Mucho Macho Man. None of Ron the Greek's eight Whitney rivals is at Macho's level, but it's a solid group that includes Flat Out (4-1), last year's Jockey Club Gold Cup winner making his second start for Mott. Fort Larned (7-2), Hymn Book (4-1) and Rule (5-1) also deserve respect.
Although Mott could run 1-2, he'd rather saddle just one.
"Believe me, I never look forward to running against myself," he said. "But we have two owners, and both horses are doing well. I can't keep one in the barn just because I have another one in the race."