Escena started racing at age two and kept on improving on the track until her able career reached its apex when she thrived at age five.
Her trainer was Bill Mott, a man with a life story that could have been portrayed best back in the day of character actors like Mickey Rooney, Glenn Ford, Stephen Root, or David Morse.
Her regular jockey was the nonpareil Jerry Bailey. Bailey was nearly ready to retire at the same time Escena was running her last races.
Foaled in Kentucky in 1993, the lithe bay was the daughter of Strawberry Road and Claxton’s Slew. Strawberry Road gained many honors in Australia and Germany. Claxton’s Slew was the daughter of Seattle Slew, the Triple Crown champion.
Bill Mott is a South Dakotan by birth. Not many big-time race tracks or racing stables out among the pheasants in South Dakota.
The quiet and reserved Mott knew what he wanted from his life at an early age. He wasn’t shooting at partridges or admiring the spectacular Dakota sunsets when he was a sophomore in high school. Instead, he was already training thoroughbreds. In fact, one of Mott’s first wins came at age 15 when his Kosmic Tour flew home first in the South Dakota Futurity.
Jerry Bailey had a steady rise toward the very top of the jockey ranks before retiring in one piece to become a well-regarded racing analyst on Triple Crown Saturdays and Breeders’ Cup weekends.
Bailey’s fame, fortune, and riding success were all due in some part to his winning association with the long, long victory streak of the thoroughbred Cigar that reached record-breaking proportion.
Escena had only three races and two wins as a two-year-old. When three, she gained her first graded stakes win in the Fantasy at Hot Springs in Arkansas. Still at age three, she had three runner-up finishes in Grade I events.
At age four, she proceeded to get her first Grade I win in the Ramona Handicap at Del Mar near San Diego. That same season, she was in the 1997 Breeders’ Cup Distaff and was third when another Mott trainee, Ajina, won that year.
And then trainer Mott brought Bailey to be her regular rider. The threesome of Mott, Bailey, and Escena joined to move her forward to the top of the ranks of handicap females.
Escena would become a name, when brought into conversations, that people routinely mentioned as an Eclipse Award-type champion.
She became so well-regarded that when victories were reeled off in the Vanity Invitational Handicap, Apple Blossom Handicap, Louisville Breeders’ Cup, Fleur de Lis Handicap, and 1998 Breeders’ Cup Distaff nobody expected any different outcomes. Escena, Mott, and Bailey had advanced that far . . . and she would be selected for the Eclipse Award as the American Champion Older Female Horse.
Her status could hardly have been more celestial.
Early in her retirement, Escena’s owner, Allen Paulson, sent her to a Horses of All Ages Sale at Keeneland, just outside of Lexington. Escena’s auction price as a potential broodmare was gaveled down at $3.25 million, the highest price ever paid for a prospective mother.
Bill Mott continued his training ways at the country’s most influential tracks. And he continued quite successfully. In a 15-year span, he won nine training championships at Saratoga. At Belmont Park, Mott had 10 training titles. And at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, Florida he did so well that he claimed another nine championships.
Years ago at Churchill Downs, Mott once sent out 54 race winners in just the spring meet alone to break the track record for one meet.
When he was still a tender 45 years old, Mott was selected to the U.S. Racing Museum and Hall of Fame. Only one other inductee had ever been enshrined at a younger age.
Bailey rode so well that he had few peers during the years that he competed.
In his lengthy career, Bailey had 5,892 wins. His 15 wins in Breeders’ Cup races are unmatched. Seven times he was voted to the Eclipse Award for “outstanding jockey in North America.”
The racing industry has through the years given him awards as much for his life as a solid citizen and recognized promoter of the sport as for what he accomplished as a rider. His Mike Venezia Memorial Award came because of “extraordinary sportsmanship and citizenship” and not because he was aboard Cigar or any of the Breeders’ Cup champions.
Escena earned over $2 million in her four years of racing.
And she helped the careers of trainer Mott and jockey Bailey along the way.