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Updated on 09/17/2011 10:28AM
Old pals breed a Derby champion
LEXINGTON, Ky. - A chance meeting in Nebraska 25 years ago brought Bill Casner and Ken Troutt together. Each had placed a claim on Great Bear Lake at the old Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack, and Casner, then a 25-year-old claiming trainer, won the two-way shake.
Neither man could have known at the time that those few minutes over the claim box would change their lives forever. Over the next 25 years, their association would make them enormously wealthy and eventually put their names in the history books as breeders of 2003 Kentucky Derby winner, Funny Cide.
Casner and Troutt's friendship took them from Ak-Sar-Ben to the rolling 1,450 acres of WinStar Farm in Kentucky, a Bluegrass showplace and one of the more innovative breeding operations in the industry today.
Along the way was a critical detour out of the racing game that made them multimillionaires and provided some of the business strategies that they are now applying to Thoroughbred breeding.
Great Bear Lake, who started it all, turned out to be a nice sort of horse for Casner, the kind that paid his way. He gave Casner and Troutt something to talk about when they ran into each other in the Ak-Sar-Ben grandstand. Troutt, whose business then was in waterproofing and contracting in Omaha, Neb., finally asked Casner to train a few horses for him. The pair "had a lot of fun and won some races," as Casner put it the other day. But Casner, who had worked at various racetrack jobs since his teenage years, increasingly had thoughts of getting out of the hard track life. His wife, Susan, a former mutuel teller, was pregnant with the first of two daughters, and Casner wanted more stability.
"I didn't want to bring those girls up on the racetrack," he said. "It's difficult to have any semblance of a family life on the racetrack, especially at the level I was. I walked away from racing and went to Texas."
But he didn't walk away from his friendship with Troutt.
"Kenny was an incredibly dynamic individual," Casner said. "He thought large, and he taught me to think big. He had such energy and vision, all these tools. I felt like he was my opportunity to be successful in business. If nothing else, at the end of the day I knew he would give his all, and whether we won or lost he was going to try."
So when Troutt, burdened by the expenses of running his own breeding operation in Nebraska, decided to get out, too, he also moved to the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where Casner was a dealer for Snap-on tools.
The two entrepreneurs started an oil business together, but it went bust in the 1980's.
"We were about 2 years old when the bottom fell out of the oil market," Casner said. "Our numbers were based on $18 a barrel. Oil had been at $27 or $28 and dropped to about $9, so we had to try something else."
That "something else" occurred to Troutt one night, and he called to pitch it to Casner. Deregulation in the telecommunications business had created opportunities in long-distance phone service, and Troutt suggested forming a phone company. The result was Excel Communications, which grew from a one-room office into a company with annual revenues of about $1.3 billion. Excel went public in 1996 with about 10 percent of its stock, and it has since gone through a series of mergers that have made it part of Bell Canada. The stock that Troutt and Casner kept was worth millions, and that presented a nice way to get back into the Thoroughbred game at a new level.
In his time in Texas, Casner had become friends with a band of racing brothers well known in Kentucky. Jack, J.R., and Art Preston owned the historic Prestonwood Farm between Lexington and Versailles, Ky., which stood Kris S., Distorted Humor, and a number of other stallions.
Casner got Troutt involved in the Prestons' Full Circle Racing partnership and helped reignite Troutt's love of the sport. When the Prestons decided to sell their farm, Troutt and Casner stepped back into the game, signing the purchase deal in early 2000.
They got a turnkey operation. And although they have added acreage and stallions, the two horses that produced Funny Cide were ones they inherited when the Prestons sold them the farm: the stallion Distorted Humor and the mare Belle's Good Cide.
"The horses that were part of the package we got from them gave us a big step up," Troutt said.
This time, they had a business plan on a grand scale.
"Our main thing is to try to build stallions," Troutt said. "That's where the money is, and everything else supports that."
The plan was to have two groups of mares, one consisting of about 50 mares whose foals would be sold and another of about 30 whose foals would race for Troutt and Casner's WinStar stable. Mares from the two bands don't cross over, said WinStar president Doug Cauthen, so buyers can remain confident the farm isn't just selling its culls.
WinStar applied some of Excel Communication's principles to the new venture, including keeping substantial percentages of its syndicated stallions so WinStar would get rewards from their success. And just as Excel sold long-distance service through Mary Kay-style marketing to boost distribution, WinStar has spread its mares around the country. Troutt and Casner credit Cauthen with coming up with the latter plan: put mares in foal to WinStar stallions, then send them to states like New York with strong breeding programs, and let the progeny sell and race at those states. The plan advertised stallions in regional markets to more buyers, but it also let WinStar reap benefits through state breeders' awards.
One of the mares they sent to New York was Belle's Good Cide, whose 1999 mating had been planned by Prestonwood's farm manager, Rich Decker, and pedigree adviser John Prather.
Belle's Good Cide, a winning Slewacide mare, didn't look like much on the racetrack. But Decker knew a good bit about her pedigree, and he liked what he saw there.
"I liked her half-sister, Belle of Cozzene," Decker said. "And John Prather and I had talked about Slewacide as a good broodmare sire; we liked him because he was out of a Buckpasser mare."
Decker also like Distorted Humor, though the young stallion's race record had caused many breeders to label him a pure sprinter unlikely to get the classic horses Prestonwood wanted to breed. But Decker keenly remembered how well Distorted Humor ran in the Grade 2 Fayette Stakes, losing by a head to Isitingood over 1 1/8 miles.
"I remember after the Fayette, I said to Art Preston, 'This is a dirty shame. Distorted Humor ran his eyeballs out, and he was 3 when Isitingood was 5, but no one's going to remember how good and close this race was," Decker said.
Troutt and Casner shipped Belle's Good Cide to McMahon of Saratoga Thoroughbreds, where she foaled the future Derby winner. That made Funny Cide a New York-bred, if mostly in name, and it made the new WinStar operation eligible for breeders' awards in the state.
Following the plan, WinStar sold Funny Cide at Fasig-Tipton's Saratoga New York-bred sale in 2001. He brought just $22,000. WinStar also sold Belle's Good Cide to Bonita Farm for just $3,500 at Fasig-Tipton Midlantic's December sale in Maryland, and she died earlier this year in Pennsylvania after twisting an intestine.
"We were definitely surprised," Troutt said of Funny Cide's emergence as potential Derby horse. But, he added, it reflected well on their decision to keep Distorted Humor, and it has added value to the stallion.
"I'm a big believer in having a well-thought-out plan and supporting it with a lot of statistics so that you're not reinventing the wheel. The value this brought our stud, all the stuff we've been talking to our staff about, it's all starting to come true."
A lot has come true for Troutt and Casner in the 30 years since they met at Ak-Sar-Ben. Casner can still remember the night that Troutt called to pitch his telecommunications idea.
"Listening to him, I knew it was an extreme longshot, but if we could make it work, it could be huge," Casner said. "And that was what both of us were looking for, that opportunity to hit the home run."
Working together, they have hit two home runs. One made them rich, and the other put their names in racing lore forever.
"You always dream of that Kentucky Derby horse," Troutt said. "But never in my wildest dreams would I have thought we'd do it in our third year and with the first crop we bred. If a crystal ball had showed it to me, I would never have believed it."