02/16/2012 12:39PM

Hovdey: Former WinStar partner Casner never afraid to go own way

Bill Casner, formerly a partner in WinStar Farm, is hopeful of pulling an upset with Kayce Ace in Saturday's Santa Maria at Santa Anita.

With the field featuring the high-flying Ellafitz, the reliable Great Hot, and the emergent Miss Mittagong, Kayce Ace will be a longshot to win the $200,000 Santa Maria Stakes at Santa Anita on Saturday. But if that ever bothered owner Bill Casner, he’s way beyond it now.

Casner’s name is most closely associated with the exploits of WinStar Farm, whose major winners have included Travers winner Colonel John, Haskell winner Bluegrass Cat, and Dubai World Cup winner Well Armed. In 2010, WinStar had a season of a lifetime when the colors were carried to victories in the Kentucky Derby by Super Saver and the Belmont Stakes by Drosselmeyer. After that, giving WinStar the Eclipse Award as Outstanding Owner of 2010 was about the only thing voters could do.

It was in the fall of 2010, however, that Casner and his wife, Susan, stepped away from the WinStar operation, wishing former partner Kenny Troutt good luck and embarking upon their own adventures as Casner Racing. Their scaled back stable is currently topped by Endorsement, a son of the WinStar stallion Distorted Humor who was injured as a talented 3-year-old and has resurfaced for trainer Eoin Harty as a fire-breathing 5-year-old, ready to take on all-comers after a track-record allowance win recently at Gulfstream Park.

When Casner bought Endorsement outright in the dissolution of the WinStar partnership, the colt was damaged goods. Or, at least, goods under repair. While training for the Kentucky Derby he fractured a cannon bone, requiring two screws to repair. Then, as his rehabilitation progressed, one of Endorsement’s tibias lit up in a scintigraphic exam, further delaying his return. In all it took about 20 months to get him back to the races.

“As far as I was concerned, Endorsement stood out as our best shot to win the Derby that year,” Casner said this week from his home in Texas. “I remember Robby Albarado getting off him after they won the Sunland Derby so impressively and just saying, ‘Wow!’ ”

The fact that Super Saver ended up winning the 2010 Derby for WinStar anyway is one of those twists that gives fate a good name. Super Saver never amounted to much after the Derby, but now Endorsement has a chance to make a reputation for himself all over again.

“I’m kind of a project person,” Casner said. “I enjoy giving these horses every opportunity to rehab and be what they can be.

“He’s run three very good races now since he’s been back,” Casner went on. “I was really impressed with him going a flat mile the time before last at Gulfstream when he broke through the starting gate before the race. I know he must have had his bell rung pretty good, and he breezed off by himself for about a sixteenth of a mile before they caught him. Then he still ran a very courageous race to be second.”

Should Endorsement keep rolling to significant stakes wins this year, much will be made of the fact that he races without Lasix.

“He doesn’t bleed, so why would we want to dehydrate him before he runs?” Casner said.

“When horses are administered Lasix, they must deal metabolically with not only the stress of the race but also the stress of dehydration, and then the recovery from that,” Casner explained. “In fact, I’ve chosen to run all our 2-year-olds without either Lasix or Butazolidin. It’s a personal choice I’ve made, because I think it’s in the best interests of my horses. I happen to believe they will perform at a higher level and continue to perform at a higher level because they will recover so much quicker from their races. I know enough to know I don’t have all the answers, but I think I am creating a competitive edge.”

Taking the long view with Endorsement, neither Casner nor Harty is anxious to butt heads with Ultimate Eagle and Game on Dude in the Santa Anita Handicap on March 3. A more likely spot would be the Razorback Handicap at Oaklawn Park the following weekend, but they will remain flexible.

As for Kayce Ace – who, Casner notes, does run with Lasix – her major target of the winter is the Santa Margarita Invitational in March, with the Santa Maria offering a chance to get her there in style.

“It wasn’t me saying we’ve got to run in a race like the Santa Maria,” Casner insisted. “This is Eoin telling me she belongs there, and he’s the one living with her. She’s one of those big, huge females who I think has finally reached her time as happy, healthy 5-year-old.”

Kayce Ace, by Tiznow, returned from a layoff on Jan. 12 to be a well-beaten fourth in the Paseana Handicap won by Ellafitz. Harty promises that new tactics will be deployed on Saturday under her new rider, Joe Talamo.

“You’ll see her a little more involved in the race early this time around,” Harty said.

Kayce (pronounced “case”) Ace is named for the Casners’ daughter, Kayce (pronounced “casey”), who has been an enthusiastic supporter of her parents’ Thoroughbred endeavors but will be otherwise occupied this weekend.

“She’s deep in the jungles of Ecuador,” Casner said. “She’s heading a project for the National Science Foundation, taking different river samplings for research into the effects of global warming on the extinction of species. They’re going into areas that have never been explored, with guides hacking their way with machetes. She’s only about 115 pounds, but I’ll tell you what – she carries that 45-pound pack just like everybody else, including the other day on a 10-mile trail through deep mud that left everybody exhausted.”

Which makes the 1 1/16 miles of the Santa Maria seem like a walk in the park for the mare who carries her name.