03/04/2015 2:50PM

WinStar holding strong hand as owner, breeder

Barbara D. Livingston
Carpe Diem will make his 3-year-old debut Saturday in the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby.

Carpe Diem and Daredevil, both scheduled to make their 3-year-old debuts Saturday, give WinStar Farm – which has an ownership interest in both – at least two strong Kentucky Derby prospects. Both were Grade 1 winners at 2, and both have been working sharply at Palm Beach Downs for trainer Todd Pletcher ahead of their comeback races.

But the reach of WinStar with the current crop of 3-year-olds extends far wider. No fewer than three of the Derby Watch top 20 – American Pharoah, Daredevil, and Khozan – are by stallions who stand at WinStar. Those stallions are, respectively, Pioneerofthe Nile, More Than Ready, and Distorted Humor. And that doesn’t even include Royal Son, WinStar’s homebred colt who won the Battaglia Memorial on Saturday and is by the farm’s most successful stallion, Tiznow.

“It’s exciting because the focus of the operation is two-turn dirt racing,” said Elliott Walden, the former trainer who is the president, chief executive, and racing manager for WinStar, which is owned by Kenny Troutt. “That’s been the target – the races we want to win, the horses we want to breed, the horses we want to race. That’s been the vision of Mr. Troutt’s all the way through. The benchmark of a good operation in American breeding is two-turn dirt racing.”

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WinStar reached the pinnacle of American two-turn dirt racing in 2010, when Super Saver won the Kentucky Derby. As with Carpe Diem and Daredevil – as well as Royal Son – Super Saver was trained by Pletcher. Walden initially trained for WinStar beginning in 2001, then left training to work full time for WinStar in 2005. He works closely with Pletcher, who trains just a handful of horses for WinStar, but their success rate is strong. Last year’s class, for instance, included Commissioner and Constitution. Now 4, Constitution is headed to the Dubai World Cup at the end of the month following his victory in last month’s Donn Handicap.

“Todd is great to work with,” Walden said. “Like with Royal Son. We had been looking at an allowance race on the turf at Gulfstream, but we thought running on Polytrack at Turfway could be a good spot, and he said, ‘Let’s do it.’ ”

This year’s crop of WinStar 3-year-olds is headed by Carpe Diem, who won the Breeders’ Futurity last fall and then was second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He is returning in a two-turn race, the Tampa Bay Derby.

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“Looking at where he was in his training, what there was on the schedule when he was going to be ready to race, we always thought this was going to be the race we would land on,” Pletcher said.

Walden thought Carpe Diem came a long way in a short amount of time last year.

“To go from 5 1/2 furlongs at Saratoga to a mile and sixteenth in the Breeders’ Futurity was a big ask, and he did it with flying colors,” Walden said. “Then he went out to Southern California and ran credibly. He got shuffled back on the first turn. Dirt hit him in the face. On the far turn, it didn’t look like he was going to run well, but he really leveled off down the stretch, finished well, and galloped out well. He accomplished a lot – three different tracks, two different distances.”

Assuming Carpe Diem runs well Saturday, the logical spot for his next start would be the Blue Grass Stakes since he already showed in the Breeders’ Futurity that he likes Keeneland’s new dirt surface.

Daredevil, who won the Champagne Stakes last year, is on a different trajectory. He will return in a sprint, the Swale Stakes, which was postponed by one week owing to heavy rain last Saturday at Gulfstream. Daredevil also has not raced since the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, in which he finished last of 11 in his only try around two turns.

“We didn’t want to run two turns first time back after the Breeders’ Cup debacle,” Pletcher said. “I think he will run two turns. In that race, there were several contributing factors. He was wide, got hung out on the first turn. We thought it best to be conservative coming back. Play it safe. He’ll still have time for a mile-and-an-eighth race next time – the Florida Derby in three weeks, the Wood Memorial or Blue Grass in four weeks, or the Arkansas Derby in five weeks.”

Royal Son will come back to Turfway for the Spiral Stakes on March 21.

American Pharoah and Khozan, by stallions who stand at WinStar, are among the elite candidates for this year’s Derby. American Pharoah, last year’s champion 2-year-old male, is training brilliantly at Santa Anita in preparation for his first start of the year in the Rebel Stakes on March 14 at Oaklawn. Khozan, unbeaten in two starts, is slotted for the Florida Derby on March 28 at Gulfstream.

“Kenny gets as much enjoyment out of those horses winning as he does his own,” Walden said. “If one of those horses wins the Derby, he’ll be jumping up and down, like he was with Funny Cide.”

Funny Cide was by Distorted Humor. WinStar sold him as a yearling.

“His reaction could have been, ‘Why did we sell him?’ ” Walden said. “But he sees the big picture.”

Right now, with the current crop of Derby prospects, WinStar is about as close as one can ever be in this sport to picture perfect.