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First Funny Cide, now Da' Tara
LEXINGTON, Ky. - Da' Tara's front-running victory in the Belmont Stakes surprised a lot of people, including the colt's breeders, WinStar Farm. The race's longest shot at 38-1, Da' Tara denied a Triple Crown bid by Big Brown, who was eased to finish last. It also gave sire Tiznow, the stallion who launched the WinStar roster, his first classic winner.
If they had seen Da' Tara's Belmont coming, WinStar co-owner Bill Casner acknowledges, he and partner Ken Troutt would never have sold the colt or his dam, Torchera. But the two men, who have known each other since Casner was a trainer and Troutt an owner at now-defunct Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack in Omaha, Neb., back in the 1970s, are well familiar with the vagaries of racing and breeding. In 2003, the gelding Funny Cide became the first classic winner bred by WinStar, which sold his dam for $3,500 soon after his birth. Similarly, WinStar sold Da' Tara's dam, Torchera, for $20,000 at Keeneland's 2006 January all-ages sale. Da' Tara himself, just turned a yearling, followed her in the ring and brought $100,000.
They have no regrets about selling either the mares or their now-illustrious foals, Casner said.
"We wouldn't have sold Funny Cide if we'd thought he was going to be the Derby winner," Casner, 60, admitted with a laugh. "Hey, nobody has a crystal ball in this business. You hope. But we sincerely want people do to well with our horses. We've sold five Grade 1 winners, and we want everybody to know that. We're in the business of selling horses, and the racing is a showcase. That's how you showcase your stallions."
The breeding program that produced Da' Tara began in 1999, when Casner and Troutt decided to re-enter the Thoroughbred business, this time at the top of the game. They had the means to do it: Since their Ak-Sar-Ben days, the men had partnered to develop Troutt's Excel Communications, now part of Bell Canada, from a one-room office into a communications company with annual revenues of about $1.3 billion in 1996 when it went public with about 10 percent of its stock.
Casner, a Texan by birth, had become friendly with fellow Texans and racehorse owners Art, J.R., and Jack Preston. When the Prestons decided to leave the Thoroughbred business in 1999, Casner and Troutt bought their Prestonwood Farm in Versailles, Ky., and renamed it WinStar. They bought all the stallions, too, including Funny Cide's sire, Distorted Humor. The first horse Casner and Troutt added to the roster themselves was two-time Breeders' Cup Classic winner Tiznow, whom they stand in partnership with Taylor Made Farm and Michael Cooper. His fee this year is $30,000, and that's expected to rise in 2009.
Before their deal for the farm even closed, Casner and Troutt were at auction scouting broodmares to put to their new venture's stallions. They paid $350,000 for Torchera, a Pirate's Bounty mare out of the very good producer Kaylem Ho (who also, incidentally, is the third dam of Belmont runner-up and Derby third-place finisher Denis of Cork).
"She was a young, pretty mare, she'd been a good racehorse, and she was in foal to Unbridled," Casner recalled. "She was the type of mare we were looking for."
But Torchera didn't pan out, at least at first.
"She had some bad luck," WinStar president Doug Cauthen, 45, said. "One of her foals was a little neurologic, one had a fairly major X-ray problem that compromised his sale. Another foal had a huge gash in her hip that eventually healed, but that hindered her development and sale. All the foals were fairly nice horses, and Torchera was a good example of a mare that could be used with a lot of stallions because she was more or less an outcross to a lot of stallions, and she had a good physical and some toughness in her race record."
The farm was in the market for some younger mares, and, at 13, Torchera looked like a good one to sell. WinStar did, even though it liked her 2005 Tiznow foal better than anything she had produced so far. In his notes on Da' Tara, penned not long before he sold, Cauthen wrote, "Nice colt, best foal so far for the mare."
Da' Tara's good looks actually were one reason WinStar decided to put him through the auction ring in January, about a month before breeding season opened.
"We are a commercial farm that is focused on profitability," Cauthen said. "The payback is in adding value to your stallions by aggressively supporting them with mares like Torchera. By selling Da' Tara when we did, we were trying to promote Tiznow's book for that year. We sold some really nice Tiznows from his first crop as weanlings and yearlings to show off the high-quality product. We want to sell the good ones to showcase that, especially. When we sold Da' Tara, we focused on selling yearlings by Tiznow that were good physical individuals to remind people how good they looked. When they see good physicals in January, it helps remind them to breed to your stallion.
"It's a good opportunity for breeders to buy off of us, because we're going to sell horses like that that can go on and do good things," Cauthen added. "Thankfully for us, we have the stallion."
Da' Tara brought the handsome price of $100,000, several times Tiznow's stud fee, that reflected his good conformation. The buyer was Gabriel Duignan's Foxtale Farm, which made a quick profit reselling the colt for $175,000 to current owner Robert LaPenta at the 2006 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga yearling sale.
Torchera, meanwhile, had left the Keeneland January auction ring and went to Florida, where she now resides at Peter and Karen Rosbeck's Hidden Point Farm.
"Even a blind squirrel sometimes runs into a nut," Peter Rosbeck quipped. He says he has had some calls from potential buyers for Torchera, who currently has a colt by Rosbeck's stallion Gimmeawink and is back in foal to him. Rosbeck hasn't decided to sell and thinks Torchera could become a new foundation mare for his operation near Ocala.
Back at WinStar, the farm is celebrating a Triple Crown turnaround. WinStar's team began the Triple Crown campaign with high hopes for Tiznow's other Grade 1 winner this year, Colonel John, who finished sixth in the Derby after a troubled trip and is now pointing for the Swaps. After Da' Tara's "pleasant surprise," as Casner put it, Tiznow's stock has boomed again.
"He's the second Grade 1 winner from that crop, the fifth graded performer, and the fourth Grade 1 winner overall," Cauthen said of Da' Tara. "It proves that Tiznow can get you the real-deal big horse. The fact that they'll go two turns just adds to it."
"I don't think any of us at the farm dreamed that that horse would run like he did," said Casner. "He really stepped up. We were just proud to have a rooting interest in the race. We thought he'd certainly hit the board. He's a Tiznow, so I thought the distance would certainly be to his liking, and, you know, that's why we run 'em, I guess."