05/03/2009 11:00PM

WinStar plays multiple choice

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Barbara D. Livingston
Bill Casner runs WinStar Farm with partner Kenny Troutt.

Don't be too impressed. It has been done before. Half a dozen times, in fact, has an owner turned up at Churchill Downs with three, count 'em, three runners in the Kentucky Derby field. Of course, it's been 63 years since the last time it happened.

That is what WinStar Farm can accomplish on Saturday, when the colors of Kenny Troutt and Bill Casner are set to be carried by Lane's End Stakes winner Hold Me Back, Lexington Stakes winner Advice, and Santa Anita Derby third-place finisher Mr. Hot Stuff in the 135th Kentucky Derby.

If they all get to the post, WinStar will find itself in the history books alongside such iconic ownerships as Harry Payne Whitney, John Hay Whitney, the Three D's Stock Farm of E.P. and G.T. Waggoner, and Col. E.R. Bradley, who did it twice. The last time it happened was 1946, when Elizabeth Arden Graham sent forth Lord Boswell, Knockdown, and Perfect Bahram to finish fourth, fifth, and ninth. The following year, Graham started only Jet Pilot, and won.

"An embarrassment of riches? You could say that," Casner said Tuesday morning, after Mr. Hot Stuff completed a routine gallop around Churchill Downs. "We've been extremely blessed."

Of the three, only Mr. Hot Stuff was a WinStar colt from the start. Advice was bought for $170,000 as a 2-year-old in Florida. Hold Me Back was the product of a foal-sharing arrangement who went back to WinStar for $400,000. Mr. Hot Stuff went through the Keeneland September yearling sales ring but was bought back by WinStar, for $200,000.

"We're in the business to sell our horses," Casner said. "A lot of times, the horses we end up keeping, we may think they're worth more than the market's telling us, or they may be horses who have a physical issue. Well Armed, for instance, was not even entered in the sale because he toed in, and it was obvious buyers would penalize him."

That worked out pretty good, since Well Armed has gone on to be one of the top older horses in North America the past two seasons, most recently taking the $6 million Dubai World Cup.

A WinStar trifecta in the Derby would be comparably huge. Despite the races they've won and company they've kept, all three will be robust double digits in the odds.

"One thing's for sure," Casner said, "they'll all three be back there together the first part. They've all got the same style. And one thing about the Derby - you don't have to worry much about enough speed in there to keep the pace honest."

All three WinStar colts have made their way to the Derby by running their best races on synthetic surfaces - Advice at Keeneland, Hold Me Back at Turfway Park, and Mr. Hot Stuff at Santa Anita. Casner, an early and steadfast proponent of synthetic tracks, acknowledged that there can be a problem in transition to dirt for some runners.

"If a horse has an action problem, the slide of a dirt track would tend to accentuate it," Casner said. "I would think they'd benefit from synthetics, because wherever that foot's going down, they get traction. But if a horse has got that really pretty action - and Hold me Back is a great example of that - why wouldn't you think they could handle either surface?"

Had anyone checked earlier this year with the WinStar brain trust - which includes former trainer Elliott Walden - they could not have predicted with a straight face such a presence in the Derby. It would have been easier to have called the shot that Well Armed would win the Dubai World Cup by a pole, which he did.

Advice is a son of Chapel Royal, trained by Todd Pletcher, who was disqualified from second to third after a narrow loss in the 2008 Arlington-Washington Futurity. He did not commence his 3-year-old season until late February, and in late March he was officially relegated to the second string with a start in the rich, but ungraded Sunland Derby. He finished fifth, then came back to win the Lexington at 15-1.

Hold Me Back, up the track on dirt in the Remsen last fall, did not return until March 21 but came out firing bullets for Bill Mott and punched his Derby ticket by winning the Lane's End and then finishing second in the Blue Grass Stakes.

Then there is Mr. Hot Stuff, named for the Casners' son-in-law, Clark Anderson, who is apparently quite the hot dog on the slopes when he is not engaged in the more serious business of being director of the Western Colorado Legacy Program of the Sonoran Institute, a nonprofit advocacy group for ecologically sound development.

Mr. Hot Stuff - the horse - had the bad luck to grow up in the shadow of his famous full brother Colonel John, so expectations were high. They dwindled, though, as he lost his first five races, then rose anew when trainer Eoin Harty added blinkers. After a fast maiden score, Mr. Hot Stuff hit the board in two major Santa Anita stakes, finishing strongly each time.

"I can't believe how much he's matured," remarked Casner's wife, Susan, as Mr. Hot Stuff circled the shedrow in front of her.

He is a striking, dark brown colt, touching 17 hands and combining the muscled health of his brother and the sweeping scope of their sire, Tiznow.

But pretty is as pretty does, and Mr. Hot Stuff has yet to catch up with his California contemporaries, let alone Colonel John, who won the Santa Anita Derby, the Travers, and ran a troubled sixth to Big Brown in the '08 Kentucky Derby as the second choice.

"And until I saw the overhead shot of that Derby, I didn't realize just how badly Colonel John got stopped," Bill Casner added. "Sheikh Mohammed calls the Kentucky Derby the toughest race in the world to win. I have no reason to disagree."