05/08/2010 12:00AM

A blessed victory for WinStar


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Ken Troutt and Bill Casner first met over the claim box at the old Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack in Omaha, Neb., in 1973.

Troutt was a 25-year-old owner and Casner a 25-year-old trainer, and both men put a claim in on Great Bear Lake. Casner won the shake, but, more important, the horse gave the two men something to talk about when they ran into each other in the grandstand. Those conversations led to a friendship and business partnership that has grown beyond either of their imaginations.

One thing they never imagined was that they would be standing together in the 2010 Kentucky Derby winner's circle as the owners and breeders of Super Saver.

Not long after Great Bear Lake brought Troutt and Casner together at the claim box, the friends left the game to try other businesses, and not always successfully: An oil company they started went under when oil prices collapsed in the 1980's. Then, in the wake of telecommunications deregulation, Troutt recommended they get into long-distance phone service. That company, Excel Communications, sprouted from a one-room office into a $5 billion property. Excel went public in 1996, then merged into Bell Canada. Now wealthy, Troutt and Casner decided to get back into Thoroughbreds, this time at the top. In 2000, they bought Kentucky's historic Prestonwood Farm, expanded it from 400 acres to more than 1,400, and gave the enlarged farm a new name: WinStar.

The meteorite that fell to earth outside Versailles, Ky., over a century ago and inspired the farm's name must have been one lucky star.

When the partners purchased Prestonwood, they bought many broodmares and the farm's stallion interests. One of the mares was carrying Funny Cide, whose 2003 Kentucky Derby victory gave the WinStar owners their first Derby win as breeders. Funny Cide's sire, Distorted Humor, was part of the Prestonwood package and has since developed into one of the most fashionable young sires. He commands a $100,000 stud fee.

WinStar's green, white, and black silks have been carried by several excellent horses: Dubai World Cup winner Well Armed and Grade 1 winners Any Given Saturday, Bluegrass Cat, and Awesome Humor, to name a few. Business has been good. A private stud deal that sent Any Given Saturday to Darley was reportedly worth tens of millions of dollars, and Troutt and Casner sold Awesome Humor's son Act of Diplomacy for $8.2 million at auction.

WinStar's ownership and management team frequently acknowledge being "blessed" in their chosen business. But, until last Saturday, they had failed to win the Kentucky Derby in nine attempts. The horse who finally put the Derby trophy on WinStar's shelf was Super Saver, a homebred who, like Funny Cide, was part of a lucky package deal when Troutt and Casner bought his dam.

"It's absolutely the toughest thing to accomplish in this game," Casner said of winning the Derby. "It's been our goal since we signed on the line to buy the old Prestonwood property. . . . You can go through your entire career, and if you don't win the Kentucky Derby, you haven't truly walked on the mountaintop.

"What I'm so thrilled about is what it's meant to our WinStar team," he said. "It's life-changing for them. Those people that are in the trenches working their butts off every day, they're the ones that deserve it."

Troutt and Casner credit WinStar president Doug Cauthen and WinStar racing manager Elliott Walden with selecting Super Saver's dam, the A.P. Indy mare Supercharger, when she came up for sale at the 2006 Keeneland November breeding stock sale. The appeal for WinStar, Cauthen said, was obvious. She was a full sister to another mare WinStar already owned, She's A Winner, whose son Bluegrass Cat had finished second to Barbaro in that year's Derby. She also represented an opportunity to repeat the highly successful breeding cross that had produced Any Given Saturday, then a promising Grade 2-placed juvenile.

"Ever since I saw Any Given Saturday as a foal, I loved the idea of A.P. Indy mares with Distorted Humors, because they were throwing these great physicals," Cauthen said, referring to foals with impressive conformation. "John Prather [the WinStar pedigree advisor] had always touted it as a great genetic cross, and Any Given Saturday and Bluegrass Cat had done so well for us. So it was a family we were aware of, and it's probably one of the bluest pedigrees in the stud book."

Not just blue, but Phipps blue. Ogden Mills "Dinny" Phipps had bred Supercharger from his Mr. Prospector mare Get Lucky, a graded winner. Supercharger's family went back to the Phippses' great mare Numbered Account and was dotted with Grade 1 performers such as Rhythm, Private Account, Heritage of Gold, and, more recently, Sea Chanter and Frost Giant. Phipps had raced Supercharger and won with her three times. But she was not a stakes winner, had earned a little more than $91,000, and had a spotty early produce record. She was barren her first two years. By the fall of 2006, neither of her two foals had made it to the races, although the second, Hedge Fund, was training reasonably well and would develop into a winner. She was carrying a foal by Hedge Fund's sire, Maria's Mon, who was among the leading sires when Supercharger came to auction. Supercharger's dam, Get Lucky, showed an affinity for that cross herself. When mated to Maria's Mon's son Monarchos, she got stakes winner Harborage.

Cauthen and Elliott saw ample reason to take a chance with Supercharger and paid $160,000 for her.

"She seemed like she had been a little bit of a hard-luck mare, and that was what we'd heard from her prior owner," Cauthen said. "We bought her wanting to breed her to Distorted Humor. We were just blessed that Super Saver came with the package. It's a cross that's continued to do well; Wait a While is bred that way. But at the time we were just chasing a family that had a lot of quality and class, and Bluegrass Cat's mom led us to Supercharger."

Unlike Funny Cide, Super Saver isn't by a WinStar stallion. He's by the late Maria's Mon, the former juvenile champion and sire of 2001 Derby winner Monarchos. But Super Saver will still help promote the WinStar roster, according to Cauthen.

"It's definitely one of the families we believe in, and, actually, Super Saver's going to be pretty exciting as a stallion because he does provide a lot of opportunity for outcrossing to a lot of mares down the road," Cauthen said. "We support our stallions, but we try to find stallions, too, and it's kind of exciting to get some outside blood. He's a big scopey horse who has developed and done well, and, with that pedigree and Bluegrass Cat as his cousin hopefully doing well, there's a bright future for him.

"Hopefully, he and Bluegrass Cat will help each other out a little bit," he said. "That's what family's for."

Bluegrass Cat did his bit eight days before the Derby, when his first winner, Bluegrass Phenom, took a maiden special weight at Keeneland.

WinStar's large breeding program certainly helped it get in the gate on Derby Day. But even big operations with big resources can fall victim to bad luck. WinStar's original four-horse Derby group dwindled to three during Derby week when Sam F. Davis Stakes winner Rule put in a poor work. WinStar scratched another just hours before the post-position draw when Sunland Derby winner Endorsement fractured an ankle.

Troutt admitted the two scratches were "very, very hard," but WinStar has learned not to take its deep bench for granted.

"I'll tell you something I learned last year: We had three in and we got beat, and I was feeling sorry for myself," Troutt said. "Then I got to thinking about how there's a lot of people who would trade places with us, so I kind of looked at it a little bit different this year, that this is just God's way of testing us, and then if we believed and honored him, he will give us what we deserve."

Now Troutt and Casner are savoring the view from the mountaintop, and Casner said he feels they're not alone.

"You know, people that bet on Super Saver, they owned that horse for that moment in time," Casner said. "The impact of it and the thrill was as much theirs as it was ours. It's always a dream, and then when it happens, you don't understand the impact of it until afterwards.

"I go around in a daze asking, 'How blessed can I be in this world?' " he said. "If I die in the next 10 minutes, my life has just been so extraordinary, it really has. People and horses."