02/12/2010 12:00AM

WinStar puts focus on classics

Email
Churchill Downs/Reed Palmer Photography
Super Saver could make his 3-year-old debut in the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct.

Considering they are bridesmaids, the partnership between Elliott Walden and the WinStar Farm of Bill Casner and Kenny Troutt has been a happy marriage.

Walden is now the vice president and racing manager for WinStar, but before he retired from training five years ago, he twice sent out the second-place finisher in the Kentucky Derby, with Victory Gallop (1998) and Menifee (1999). WinStar also has a second-place finish in the Derby, with Bluegrass Cat (2006), one of 10 starters WinStar has had in the Derby, either alone or in partnership, in just the last four runnings.

WinStar has become a powerful force in the sport, from the breeding shed - with stallions such as Distorted Humor and Tiznow - to the racetrack, where its biggest wins include the Dubai World Cup with Well Armed and the Travers Stakes and Santa Anita Derby with Colonel John. But the Derby is the focal point of the operation. Horses are bred, raised, managed, and raced with the classics in mind. And this year, less than three months before the 136th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, WinStar might have its deepest pool of prospects ever for America's most famous race.

:: VIDEO:

:: DERBY WATCH: (PDF)

:: ROAD TO THE DERBY:

WinStar 3-year-olds American Lion, Drosselmeyer, Rule, and Super Saver are four of the horses in the inaugural top 20 of Daily Racing Form's 2010 Derby Watch. Two were scheduled to run Saturday, with American Lion in the Grade 2, $150,000 Robert Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita, and Rule in the Grade 3, $225,000 Sam Davis Stakes at Tampa. Drosselmeyer could make his next start Feb. 20 in the Grade 3 Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds, and Kentucky Jockey Club winner Super Saver, the most-accomplished of the quartet to this point, is scheduled to make his 2010 debut next month. Every one of them had a brief freshening at the end of their 2-year-old year.

"Everything we do is geared to the spring of their 3-year-old year," Walden said. "It's important to let a horse down at the end of his 2-year-old year and then get him back up at 3. They get stronger compared to if you train on them and train on them.

"We're blessed to have a core group of stallions that give our horses the opportunity to run long. The focus of our 2-year-old year is with the intent of giving them the best opportunity to capitalize as 3-year-olds. We feel like this is our best chance yet because we've got so many options, not just one marquee horse."

The four colts are with three trainers. Eoin Harty trains American Lion, Bill Mott has Drosselmeyer, and Todd Pletcher trains Rule and Super Saver. Walden - along with WinStar president Doug Cauthen - decided how to mix and match the horses with the trainers and then coordinates race schedules to try to avoid conflicts.

"I do discuss it with Doug and Kenny and Bill, but then they leave me to make the decision," Walden said this week from the WinStar office in Lexington, Ky. "We try and see where horses fit from a regional standpoint. There's so many factors now with the different surfaces in this country. We base it on the attributes of the individual trainers."

The horses have plenty of background before they even leave for the racetrack. At WinStar, Richard Budge, a former assistant when Walden was training, oversees a training program designed to send out 2-year-olds ready to move right along for their respective ontrack trainers. American Lion, in fact, ran under Budge's name when he made his debut at Arlington last summer before going to Harty.

American Lion won twice in three starts last year. He has not raced since Nov. 21.

"That was by design," Walden said. "We made a conscious decision to skip the CashCall Futurity. We wanted to let him grow up and be ready for the spring."

Rule last raced Dec. 4, when he won the Delta Jackpot, his second straight win at Delta Downs.

"We're excited to get him started," Walden said. "He's out of a half-sister to Funny Cide, who made a quantum leap from 2 to 3, so we're hoping Rule does the same thing."

Pletcher said the Delta races might mask Rule's quality.

"I think this is a pretty good horse," Pletcher said from Palm Meadows in Florida, where he is based this winter. "The races at Delta might have been a little better, numbers-wise, than most would have expected. He's 2 for 2 around two turns and 3 for 3 at a mile or more."

Drosselmeyer returned from a 2 1/2-month freshening to win a first-level allowance race at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 31. He has now won two straight after beginning his career with three losses.

"If he does well over the next week, he possibly could show up next weekend in the Risen Star," Walden said. "It's a bit of a timing issue. He'd be coming back in three weeks, which is a little quick. He needs to run two more times before the Derby. The other option is to wait five weeks for the Gotham, but we're looking at that as a possibility for Super Saver."

The Grade 3 Gotham is March 6 at Aqueduct. If Super Saver does not run there, he could await the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn on March 13. Regardless, "we want to run him twice before the Derby," Walden said. "Two starts into the Derby, he should be fresh."

With so many contenders, WinStar has an excellent chance of walking down the Derby aisle for the fifth straight year. WinStar is a progressive, fan-friendly operation. It supports many racing charities. And its outreach program includes a free, online (winstarfarm.com) Derby fantasy contest that offers box seats, airfare, and three nights in a hotel for this year's Derby and Kentucky Oaks.

Bridesmaids are always so thoughtful.

WHO'S HOT

Bob Baffert, a three-time winner of the Kentucky Derby, has four of his trainees in the inaugural top 20 of Derby Watch, including Eclipse Award winner Lookin At Lucky, who is the 4-1 favorite on the future line set by Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper. Trainer Todd Pletcher, who has yet to win the Derby but has finished second twice, also has four runners in the top 20. Two of Pletcher's colts - Rule and Super Saver - are owned by WinStar Farm, which also has four of its horses in the top 20. WinStar's other two are American Lion, trained by Eoin Harty, and Drosselmeyer, who is with Bill Mott.

WHO'S NOT

The trainers of the last seven Derby winners don't have anyone in the top 20, though Rick Dutrow (Big Brown) and Michael Matz (Barbaro) certainly have prospects who could jump up. Dutrow trains D' Funnybone and Homeboykris, while Matz has Barbaro's full brother Lentenor.

ON THE BUBBLE

Afleet Express, who has a route pedigree (by Afleet Alex) and has shown great promise in two sprint starts for trainer Jimmy Jerkens, is among the many horses who just missed making the cut this week. Kettle River, an allowance winner last month at Santa Anita for Harty, also is waiting in the wings. So too Sidney's Candy, who disappointed in his comeback Dec. 30 but will be looked at anew should he bounce back with a top performance in his next start; he is scheduled to race in the San Vicente Stakes on Monday at Santa Anita.