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Catching Up With: Well Armed and Bill Casner
On a recent morning at Bill Casner’s ranch in the sleepy North Texas town of Flower Mound, Well Armed breezes into the training barn after a romp in his pasture. He looks nothing like a horse who moved into his fifth year of retirement this month.
Well Armed is in good flesh but not fat. His head is held high, his eyes are bright, and the hue of his coat remains a deep caramel – proof of a cautious turnout schedule in the bleaching Texas sun. The 10-year-old gelding is still a commanding presence.
Well Armed also remains the star of Casner’s operation, where a poster-sized photograph of the horse’s 2009 win in the $6 million Dubai World Cup adorns a prominent wall in the training barn. The picture is a reminder of a once-in-a-lifetime race.
Casner’s ranch has been Well Armed’s home since long before his 14-length victory in Dubai. It was at the 165-acre facility nestled in a community of sport-horse farms that Well Armed rehabbed from a broken hip sustained in a stall accident in 2006. He would not return to the races for more than a year and a half, much of his recovery taking place under Casner’s direction. The rehab involved swimming, which forced him to equally use both of his hind legs, and arena work.
“I think that there were a lot of people who didn’t believe he’d ever make it back to the races,” Casner, 65, said. “I thought strongly that he would because I had the luxury of going through the process with him. I knew where he was at. I’d ridden him myself in the arena for the last 45 days before I shipped him and put him back in training. I knew how strong this horse was.”
Well Armed won a Hollywood Park allowance race in his second start back in November 2007, and two races later, he captured the Grade 2 San Antonio at Santa Anita. He then shipped to Dubai for the 2008 World Cup and was third to Curlin. He would return in 2009 and dominate for Casner and partner Kenny Troutt, who a little more than a year later would win the Kentucky Derby with Super Saver.
“It was such an amazing race,” Casner said. “I think that no horse has won the Dubai World Cup like he did, by 14 lengths, and he beat a very, very good horse in Gloria de Campeao ... You know, that’s probably the highest mountain I’ve ever stood on in horse racing. Even the Kentucky Derby wasn’t as high a mountain as that one, and it was because of what this horse had gone through, the adversity that he’d overcome, and perhaps the connection and time that I had spent with him rehabbing him. For him to come back and perform at that level, with all that he had to overcome, was just unbelievable.”
Well Armed now divides his time between his pasture and the training barn, where he has a stall alongside some of the stable’s up-and-comers, including his yearling full sister, Well Lived. He has his share of visitors, too, and even gets e-mails from fans.
Well Armed’s constant companion in the field, meanwhile, is Bet Me Best, winner of the Grade 2 Hutcheson in 1999. Now 17, Bet Me Best is the speed to Well Armed’s stamina, and the pair of geldings have formed a strong bond through the years.
“They’re joined at the hip,” Casner said. “They’re always together. They sit there and scratch each other’s backs. They also have stalls next to each other and will look at each other through the window.”
Casner will at times ride Well Armed, taking him out for a spin around the 300-foot-long arena that jets out from the training barn. The pair also will make the rounds at the ranch.
“He’s a special boy,” Casner said. “It was a very, very satisfying journey with him. I may never have another one like him, and I may never have one that means as much to me as him.”
But that does not mean Casner has stopped his search for the next big horse. He and his wife, Susan, have about 15 runners at the track, most under the care of Eoin Harty, who trained Well Armed. They also have 14 yearlings at their Texas ranch, by such stallions as Candy Ride, Colonel John, Giant’s Causeway, Tapit, Tiznow, and Tiz Wonderful.
The yearlings are a mix of horses bought at auction and homebreds produced from their 20-horse broodmare band based at WinStar Farm in Versailles, Ky. The horses come to Texas in December and enter into a development program in February. It exposes them to vibration-plate technology, a routine that builds bone density; swimming, which builds lung power; and the initial stages of traditional training.
Casner said he starts working with the yearlings much earlier than a typical program, which might start in September.
“My belief is if we start with these horses when they’re very young, we’re doing two things: We’re training them physically, and we’re training them mentally because we’re messing with them every day. We’re doing something. We’re building bones. We’re building muscle. We’re building athleticism, and we’re also building their confidence in us. We all know as horsemen that a horse with a good mind, a cooperative mind, is something that is so important in the process.”
Casner oversees the program, and it’s a natural fit for the El Paso, Texas, native, who began galloping racehorses at 15 and eventually turned to training, competing in Arkansas, Illinois, Louisiana, Nebraska, and New Mexico. Casner’s clients included Troutt, whom he would later team with in the 2000 purchase of the land that would become WinStar Farm.
The means to realize the dream of a top-class breeding and racing operation came through their Excel Communications, an idea Troutt developed and a company that eventually went public. The men set a goal for WinStar to achieve Kentucky Derby success within 10 years of the farm’s establishment, and after the goal was realized with Super Saver, Casner sold his interest in the farm to Troutt. But he still has close ties to WinStar, including owning the majority of the shares in its hottest young stallion, Colonel John.
“That run that we had at WinStar when we had a dozen starters over six years in the Kentucky Derby, that was absolutely an incredible time,” Casner said. “I’ve got smaller numbers now, but hopefully, I’ll have another one in the Derby.”
And maybe even another prospect for Dubai.
Born: March 12, 1948, in El Paso, Texas
Top horses raced: Well Armed, Super Saver, Drosselmeyer, Colonel John, Bluegrass Cat, Any Given Saturday, Spring At Last, Bet Me Best
Breeding operation: Band of 20 broodmares stabled at WinStar Farm in Versailles, Ky.; owns majority of shares in Colonel John, who stands at WinStar; owns majority of shares in American Lion, who stands at Darby Dan in Lexington, Ky.; and has shares in stallions Dialed In and Spring At Last
Farm operation: A 165-acre ranch in Flower Mound, Texas, that features a state-of-the-art training barn with 28 stalls; an open-field gallop; swimming facilities; and an oversized arena that is 300 feet long by 125 feet wide
Racing affiliations: Board member of The Jockey Club, the Breeders’ Cup, and the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, of which he is a past chairman; co-founder and vice chairman of Kentucky Equine Education Project (KEEP); also co-founded The Race for Education, which awards scholarships to children of backstretch workers and students interested in racing
Born: APRIL 4, 2003
Bred in: Kentucky
Breeder: WinStar Farm (Bill Casner and Kenny Troutt) WINSTAR FARM (BILL CASNER AND KENNY TROUTT)
Pedigree: Tiznow - Well Dressed, by Notebook TIZNOW–WELL DRESSED, BY NOTEBOOK
Race record: 24 starts, 7 wins, 4 seconds, 1 third, earnings of $5,179,803
Stakes wins: 2009 Dubai World Cup (UAE-G1), 2008 Goodwood S. (G1), San Antonio H. (G2), and San Diego H. (G2)