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Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:03

Winner's Circle - An Old Veteran Stays on Track

By | Sports

“Solenzano had worked hard for me for several years and I thought I’d do the old fellow a favor and retire him,” said Bill Mott about his stable pony. “I took him to a friend’s farm where I knew he would get good care, and I set off for the racing season. When I got back, my buddy told me I’d better come out to look at him.”

 

Most horses tail off when you change their routine, but what Mott found with “Soly” was not typical. “He was lethargic, and that’s just not like him,” said Mott. “I knew I needed to change something, so I brought him back to the track to figure out what to do next. Almost immediately his eyes brightened and he started to gain weight. When I finally put the tack on him, he got back to his old self right away.”

You may think because he’s 22 years-old, Soly would no longer be suited for his demanding job, but cruising beside world-class runners is the work he thrives on. It’s retirement that didn’t suit him; working is his gig. And when he’s not working, he’ll wait patiently to be told what to do next.

Mott doesn’t have to ask Soly twice when a morning training exercise requires a quick response; the spirited brown horse is more than willing to belly down to get one to the pole for a work-out or catch a horse that’s doing too much. The skilled pair make it look easy, a lot like a game.

“Soly works as hard as any horse in the barn,” said Mott’s stable employee, Pat Hammel. She’d been grazing Soly when a groom suggested the limited grass be reserved for runners. Hammel was quick to defend her turf. “This horse deserves every kindness we can possibly provide him,” she stated. The dignified old fellow seemed to almost swagger as she led him off to his stall beside Mott’s office.

Hammel readily admits, “I love this horse.” She went on to tell me a thousand and one reasons why. “You know, Soly’s earned something like a $170,000; Christophe Clement trained him; he was a turf specialist; he’s been a model; he gets Christmas cards from all over; entire families come out here just to get their picture taken with him, AND he ground ties!” Ground ties is when a rider can step off a horse, drop the reins and the horse will stay put. That’s a discipline few horses possess, and it’s especially impressive to see an ex-racehorse standing completely unattended on the racetrack!

I looked up his record. Solenzano was bred in France and broke his maiden in his first start as a two-year-old in that country. He raced exclusively in France through his 4-year-old season, winning 8 of 20 starts. In the United States and still under French-born Clement’s care, he added his ninth and final victory in 1995 at Belmont Race Course with Jerry Bailey in the irons. He closed out his racing career with a third-place finish in a $25,000 claiming event at Calder in November of 1996. In typical Clement fashion, the horse was taken out of training rather than left to descend down the ladder. He came home to that trainer’s stable at Payson Park Training Center in Indiantown, Florida.

I learned more of Solenzano’s story from Wendy Culberson, who’s been a Payson Park regular for many years, the last 17 of which she’s served as the outrider. Additionally, Culberson specializes in re-training off-the-track Thoroughbreds at her nearby farm.

“I’m on the track every morning at Payson, so naturally with all the good horses I see, I’m continually spotting ones I’d like to own,” said Culberson. “I’ve gotten several off Christophe through the years and I told him right off that if he ever needed a home for Solenzano, I’d love to have him. He was gorgeous and a beautiful mover.”

Clement ended up giving the stallion to Culberson soon after that last Calder race. She took him home, gelded him and gave him time to adjust. “He was a little nasty at first but soon mellowed out,” she said.

Culberson recalled, “He was quite easy to re-school. It didn’t take long at all for me to start outriding on him – and let me tell you, I never missed catching one off of him. He’s super-fast and has an enormous stride.”

Payson Park has been Bill Mott’s winter home since the 1990s, and the sage trainer soon took note of Culberson’s handsome new mount.

“Bill’s gotten several horses from me over the years and he was anxious to get his hands on this one,” Culberson admitted. “I didn’t want to give him up, but when you have a chance to place a horse in the right hands, you should do it – you have to make room for others. I don’t ever have to worry about a horse going to Bill; he’s such a good caregiver. Matter-of-fact, he’s actually bad for my business because he keeps his horses forever.”

Mott’s had Solenzano for 14 or 15 years now, and as you may have figured out, he’s not looking to retire him – not until the horse says, “that’s enough.” As the photos indicate, the old veteran does whatever is asked of him, anything to avoid getting turned out and left behind. People at the barn told me he tolerated an all-day modeling session like a pro. That job had to be a whole lot easier than striding alongside the likes of Royal Delta, To Honor and Serve or going Flat Out, but easy isn’t what this horse wants. He’s perfectly happy to be Mott’s go-to mount, accompanying those runners other lead ponies can’t keep pace with. Mott’s pleasure with him is obvious, from his light hands on the reins to the new awning protecting Soly from Saratoga’s hot afternoon sun.

Hammel told me, “The good horses actually prefer to go out with Soly, they seem to understand each other. But we don’t use him to take horses to the post in the afternoons – over there, he remembers who he used to be.”

“When out of town races force Mott to miss morning training, Soly usually enjoys those days off. The boss is really fussy about who rides the lead ponies,” said Hammel.

I’m not surprised, it’s those kind of details that put Bill Mott in the Hall of Fame. There is no one better at keeping horses on the right track.

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