04/07/2009 11:00PM

Aiming high with $25K purchase

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It was the end of the sale. A long, hard slog. Two weeks of looking at horses in September 2007. Those who were still interested, like trainer Mac Robertson, were bleary-eyed. The high-priced yearlings, the ones with fancy pedigrees and the flawless conformation, were long gone. By now, it was bargain time.

"I was looking for one more colt," Robertson recalled.

Into the ring came a gray colt by Monarchos, a Kentucky Derby winner, out of a mare by Carson City, the damsire of another Derby winner, Barbaro.

"I love Carson City mares. They have a lot of toughness," Robertson said. "There's a lot of try in them. The mare wasn't a top, top mare, but she ran with some of the best in the country. Monarchos is only a so-so sire sire. But I can't go to a sale and buy Storm Cats and Unbridled's Songs."

He was panning for gold, and he found a nugget. On behalf of his primary clients, the Jer-Mar Stable of Jerry and Marlene Myers, Robertson bought the colt for $25,000, about the price of an agent's commission on one of the yearlings sold two weeks earlier. The Myerses named the colt Win Willy, in honor of one of their grandsons. And if he runs well enough Saturday, in the Grade 2, $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park, Win Willy will continue his improbable march to the May 2 Kentucky Derby, and give Robertson his first starter in the race.

But Robertson, 34, is not looking at the Derby with dreamy naivete. Befitting a son of Hugh Robertson, a veteran Midwest trainer with a reputation for always placing his horses in realistic spots, Robertson wants Win Willy to earn his way there through his performance Saturday, not get in through the back door. He already has enough graded stakes earnings by virtue of an upset win last month in the Rebel Stakes.

Hugh Robertson, 58, never has had a horse in the Kentucky Derby. The closest he got was with Polar Expedition, who won the Lane's End Stakes in 1994. Polar Expedition bypassed the Derby, and went on to win $1.4 million, retiring in 2000 as the second richest Illinois-bred of all-time. His son took notes.

Win Willy "needs to run first or second in the Arkansas Derby to go to the Kentucky Derby," Robertson said on a national teleconference earlier this week. "If not, we'll freshen him up until the fall and not beat him up in the Triple Crown."

That sensibility is part of what has made Robertson one of the fastest-rising talents in the game. He has won the training title at Canterbury Park in Minnesota for four straight years, and that's where he will head on Sunday, with 50 head, after Oaklawn's meet closes Saturday. Unless, of course, he has to make a detour to Churchill Downs.

"It's like taking care of your kids," Robertson said. "You're not going to put your 8-year-old in a ballgame against 12-year-olds. You have to run where the horses are competitive."

The Myerses, who live in Minnesota, have been clients of the Robertsons for years. "They're the only ones who watched me do no good with a bunch of horses, then gave me a bunch more," Robertson said.

That patience is paying off. As is the patience Robertson showed with Win Willy.

Win Willy made his debut last August at Canterbury. Sent off the 7-5 favorite in a 5 1/2-furlong race, he crushed maidens by 4 1/2 lengths. But he did not race again for 2 1/2 months.

"He had a little bit of a shin going into the race. He ran big, but it was worse after the race," Robertson said. After the sore shin cleared, Robertson looked for a two-turn race on the main track at Remington.

"But I couldn't get a race to go, so I ran him on the grass," Robertson said. "That was a disaster."

Win Willy finished sixth of 10 in that first-level allowance. Robertson decided to wait until Oaklawn to run Win Willy again.

In his first start of the year, on Feb. 22, Win Willy beat a first-level allowance field going six furlongs. He then made his stakes debut in the Rebel. Ignored at 56-1, Win Willy rallied from last in the nine-horse field to beat the previously unbeaten Old Fashioned by 2 1/4 lengths.

"Obviously the race set up for him," Robertson said. "I think he ran about as good as he can run in the Rebel. I was surprised he won the race. But I wasn't surprised he ran well."

He has remained sharp. Win Willy breezed a half-mile on Wednesday at Oaklawn in 48 seconds, the fastest time of nine at the distance.

Win Willy had four different riders in his first four races, but Cliff Berry is back aboard for the Arkansas Derby.

"I hate to ride him back," Robertson said, joking. "I probably should ride someone different."

Strip away the pre-judgments over his purchase price and the nationally low profile of his connections, and Win Willy stacks up. He is now 3 for 3 on dirt, his lone loss coming on turf. He ran the best race of his life when stretched out around two turns for the only time. Clearly, he is better than first expected. But Robertson knows a lot is at stake Saturday.

"If he were to run well Saturday, he'd be a horse they'd have to deal with," Robertson said. "But if he runs bad, they'll say the Rebel was a fluke and he got lucky."

In other Derby developments:

* Win Willy drew post 9, with Old Fashioned just to his inside, when a field of 10 was entered on Wednesday in the Arkansas Derby. Papa Clem, the other Derby Watch member in the race, landed post 2.

* Five Derby Watch members - Charitable Man, Hold Me Back, Mafaaz, Terrain, and Theregoesjojo - are among the 11 horses entered on Wednesday in the Grade 1, $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes on Saturday at Keeneland. Both the Arkansas Derby and Blue Grass are at 1 1/8 miles, a furlong shorter than the Kentucky Derby.

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WHO'S HOT

There are three newcomers this week to the top 20 of Derby Watch: Charitable Man, Square Eddie, and West Side Bernie. Both Charitable Man and Square Eddie are attempting to make the Kentucky Derby despite abbreviated racing as 3-year-olds, but both have the graded stakes earnings to give it a go. Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper, made Square Eddie a 30-1 shot, with Charitable Man 50-1. West Side Bernie, second in the Wood Memorial last Saturday, is 40-1 on Watchmaker's line. I Want Revenge, the Wood winner, is the new Derby favorite on Watchmaker's line. He is 9-2 after being 8-1, the fourth choice, a week ago. Pioneerof the Nile, the Santa Anita Derby winner, is now 8-1 after being 12-1 last week. Also making a big move was Santa Anita Derby runner-up Chocolate Candy, who is down to 15-1 after being 40-1 last week.

WHO'S NOT

Imperial Council, who ran fifth in the Wood, and Take the Points, a last-second starter in the Santa Anita Derby who was fourth, were dropped because of poor performances in their respective preps. Also off the list is The Pamplemousse, whose tendon injury was announced over the weekend.

On the Bubble

General Quarters and Join in the Dance are among the entrants in the Grade 1, $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland who are seeking berths in the Derby. The Grade 2, $1 million Arkansas Derby has bubble horses Danger to Society and Flying Private. Both those key Derby preps are Saturday.

- Jay Privman