05/04/2010 11:00PM

Lightning strikes twice for Bill Casner


Pop quiz. Quick . . . who owned Ferdinand? You remember him, a big, good-looking sonofagun, red mane and tail flying, who got through a couple of tight spots from the one-hole to win the 1986 Kentucky Derby. He was a pretty good story all by himself, being a son of English Triple Crown winner Nijinsky. But then there was his trainer, Charlie Whittingham, who was winning his first Derby at the age of 73, and his jockey, Bill Shoemaker, who was winning his fourth Derby at the age of 54.

They were dubbed the "Sunshine Boys" in hyperbolic headlines. Their geriatric status was doted over, as if they had to be wheeled to Churchill Downs and fed soft food. Shoe and Charlie didn't mind, though. They had a great time, and they didn't celebrate any more or less than they would have if they had finished fifth.

But who owned Ferdinand? By now you've looked it up, and it was Elizabeth "Libby" Keck, the wife of oilman Howard B. Keck. Between them, they had been supplying Whittingham with a steady stream of remarkable runners for more than 20 years, including Fiddle Isle, Tallahto, Pallisima, Le Cle, Balzac, Saber Mountain, and Hidden Light. And when the day came that Ferdinand took them to the highest horse racing heights, the Kecks were buried beneath the weight of the Sunshine Boys and their miracle collaboration.

There is a lot of that going down this time around. The media, famous for picking the low-hanging fruit, has found a bountiful harvest in all things either Calvin Borel, winning his third Derby in four years, or Todd Pletcher, who was winning his first Derby after 24 previous tries. Somewhere in the pile is the horse, Super Saver, and then there's the guy in the hat.

Bill Casner looks like an off-duty Texas Ranger, lean and hard, legs bowed just enough. Casner owns WinStar Farm with his friend and business partner Kenny Troutt, which is possible because they used to own Excel Communications before taking it public and then selling it for a nice profit.

Super Saver was foaled and raised at WinStar Farm, outside Lexington, Ky. Casner remembers him as a young horse "you just couldn't pick on a whole lot."

"He was always kind of a field leader," Casner said. "That's something you like to see, how they interact in the field. In the herd environment, through evolution, the middle of the pack is the safest place to be. It wasn't his nature, though."

Casner was speaking from somewhere in the Santa Ynez Valley, California's central coastal horse country, where he was participating for the first time in the annual ride of the Rancheros Visitadores, a sort of horseback version of Bohemian Grove, where movers, shakers, and power-players gather to ride the oak-clustered hills. Casner, it is safe to say, was the only guy who just a few days before found himself in front of a hundred thousand people as the owner of a Kentucky Derby winner.

"I was kind of standing outside myself, looking at everything going on around me and thinking, 'Did we just win the Kentucky Derby?' " Casner recalled of the post-Derby scene.

"It's always the dream of everyone in this business," Casner went on. "And you work hard to try and achieve that. But the Derby is the most elusive of all races. Sheikh Mohammed, I think has won every major Grade 1 race in the world, with the exception of the Derby. When Alfred Vanderbilt died I was looking through all the great horses he had, and I was looking for the Derby winner. There wasn't one.

"So you know how hard it is to win, going in, and you've got that perspective," Casner added. "Then, when it happens, it's amazing."

Amazing doesn't even begin to describe the fateful twists and turns of the last decade for Casner and his wife, Susan. WinStar Farm was christened in 2000. In October 2002, the Casners' oldest daughter, Karri, was among the 202 killed in the terrorist fire-bombing of a nightclub in Bali. She was 23.

Seven months later, Funny Cide, bred at WinStar, won the 129th Kentucky Derby. Seven years later, the Casners, along with their younger daughter Kayce, have won Derby 136.

"Karri is always with us at the races," Casner said. "Our horses carry that emblem in her memory on the sleeve of silks worn by the rider. What happened keeps things in perspective.

"There was a young man from Iowa who came up to me during the races the other day, introduced himself and told me it was the first horse race he and his wife had ever been to," Casner went on. "He said it was one of the most amazing experiences he'd ever had. I told him to just wait until the 11th race when those 20 of the best horses of their generation walk out and they play 'My Old Kentucky Home.' It's a rare person who won't get the chills or shed a tear.

"After the race, we were walking back across the racetrack when I saw him and his wife standing over by the rail," Casner said. "He told me it was the most extraordinary thing that had every happened to them. He'd bet on Super Saver, and for that moment in time he owned a piece of that horse, so it was an incredible emotional experience.

"I asked if he and his wife had children," Casner added. "He said no. So I told him, 'Well, this will be the most extraordinary experience . . . until you have children. That's when this event will be replaced.' "