02/15/2012 2:54PM

Kentucky Derby: Whiting back with another shot 20 years after victory

Coady Photography/Oaklawn Park
Cyber Secret scores a front-running victory in a first-level allowance at Oaklawn Park on Feb. 4.

It’s usually the first question anyone asks Lynn Whiting when they meet him and find out he’s a racehorse trainer: “Have you ever won the Kentucky Derby?” Fortunately, he can answer yes.

Twenty years ago, Whiting achieved the dream of every trainer when he won the Derby, with the longshot Lil E. Tee, who gave another local favorite of Kentucky, Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day, his lone win in America’s greatest race. Day has long since retired, but Whiting, now 72, is still making the rounds at the barn, every morning.

“I could never envision myself retiring,” Whiting said in a telephone interview earlier this week, “as long as I have horses who can run and owners who can pay.”

In Cyber Secret, Whiting has both.

Cyber Secret comes off a front-running victory in a first-level allowance at Oaklawn Park on Feb. 4, and will come right back Monday in the Southwest Stakes. He is owned by Charles Cella, 75, whose family has owned Oaklawn for nearly a century.

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Whiting purchased Cyber Secret on behalf of Cella following his second start, in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes last fall at Churchill. As such, the story so far closely parallels that of Lil E. Tee, whom Whiting acquired after his second start for his top client at the time, W. Cal Partee.

“What a splendid irony,” Cella said from his office in St. Louis.

Friends for 50 years, Cella instructed Whiting to be on the lookout for a top Derby prospect.

“He knows I love horses, especially fast ones,” Cella said. “He did the dirty work. He spotted the horse.”

Cyber Secret won his debut at Belmont Park going 6 1/2 furlongs on Oct. 20 for trainer Chad Brown and owners Gary and Mary West, then came back five weeks later in the Kentucky Jockey Club, at 1 1/16 miles. After a wide trip, he finished seventh of 11.

“When the horses came into the paddock, I was struck by his appearance,” Whiting recalled. “I thought there was quite a bit to him. They were trying a Grade 2 after going 6 1/2 furlongs. I knew the Wests had horses on the market earlier in the fall. After the race, I took a shot and offered a price, and they accepted.

“We kicked a lot of tires. Either the horses were priced out of our range, or they just didn’t want to sell. This one worked out. We bought him hoping he’d be a Derby type of horse.”

In his first start for Whiting and Cella, in a first-level allowance at Oaklawn on Jan. 15, Cyber Secret got off poorly and never was a factor, finishing ninth of 10.

“He turned his head right at the break, got roughed up, was back behind horses, and was running off, making more trouble for himself,” Whiting said. “We knew he had some quality, so we put him in the gate and got run on his mind for his next race, and he performed like we thought he would. He settled, and when they came into the lane, he found another gear.

“I don’t think he needs to be in front. In his first start, he showed he wasn’t a need-the-lead type. I would think the Southwest would have a pretty honest pace. You usually catch a lot of sprinters stretching out. You need a horse who can adapt. You don’t want a horse who is one dimensional. But he has to prove it. He has to answer the question – how good is he?”

Lil E. Tee in 1992 also wintered in Arkansas. Though based there, he was sent to Kentucky for what was then known as the Jim Beam Stakes, which he won, and then finished second by a neck to Pine Bluff in the Arkansas Derby in his final prep for the Kentucky Derby.

“I really thought the horse had a big chance,” Whiting said of the Kentucky Derby. “I thought Pine Bluff was the horse to beat, but he had run poorly in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, which was run over that surface. I didn’t think Arazi was going to be fit for a mile-and-a-quarter race on dirt after just one turf race going a mile in France.”

And then A.P. Indy was scratched the morning of the race with what turned out to be a blind quarter crack.

“He wasn’t really training that well,” said Whiting, whose barn at Churchill Downs abuts the backstretch near a gap at the five-furlong pole, where he can easily scout the opposition. “I certainly kept tabs on everyone. He was compromised by that foot. Even if he had run, he probably wouldn’t have run his best.”

Whiting never has carried a large barn. The most victories he ever had in a calendar year was in 1984, when he won 55 races with a stable that included At The Threshold – who finished third in that year’s Derby to Swale – and Big Pistol, who won that year’s Haskell. Lil E. Tee’s Derby victory provided the high-water mark for yearly earnings, with Whiting’s runners banking $1.4 million in 1992.

He currently has eight horses at Oaklawn, four of whom are owned by Cella.

“A lot of people who aren’t in our business, they think you have a horse in the Derby each year,” Whiting said. “I’ve had three Derby horses in 40 years, so I greatly appreciate the opportunity when it comes.”