Horses: WinStar hoping to end 0-for-9 Kentucky Derby hex
AP Sports Writer
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Doug Cauthen thought winning the Kentucky Derby would be easy.
After all, his older brother, Steve, won a Triple Crown as a teenager aboard Affirmed in 1978.
"I thought for sure I'd probably train a Kentucky Derby winner by the time I was 18, after watching him," Doug said. "Then, once I got in the business world I figured it would take me awhile. I've paid my dues."
Now the president of WinStar Farm, Cauthen is ready to end the operation's Derby drought.
WinStar is 0 for 9 in the sport's biggest event, its best finish a distant second by Bluegrass Cat in 2006. For arguably one of the top racing operations in the country, it's not exactly the highlight for a resume.
But that's something they hope to change by sending Super Saver and American Lion to the paddock for Saturday's Derby.
Owner and co-founder Bill Casner can point to the farm's success in other races — the Haskell, Remsen and Dubai World Cup, among others — yet there's little doubt where the Derby ranks on their wish list.
"The holy grail of racing," he said.
WinStar's best chance may have come two years ago, when the farm brought Santa Anita Derby winner Colonel John to Churchill Downs. The colt was boxed in at the first turn and never recovered, finishing sixth. The performance stung trainer Eoin Harty just as much as WinStar, but the two are back together this year with Illinois Derby winner American Lion.
Harty is a Bob Baffert protege who trained for massive Dubai-based Darley Stable. Darley and Ireland's Coolmore are the thoroughbred racing equivalents of the Yankees and Red Sox. WinStar would like to carve out its own place at the top of the standings.
"They've certainly got something going right over there, they show up here every year with a contender," Harty said.
Earlier this spring, WinStar anticipated reaching the Derby with as many as five contenders. But the farm's approach is too measured to get caught up in Derby fever.
Drosselmeyer, its best 3-year-old, isn't even in the race. The colt finished third in the Louisiana Derby but didn't have enough graded earnings to get into the Derby.
WinStar briefly considered entering him in the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland two weeks ago as a last-second attempt to qualify. Instead, the farm opted to skip the race because it wasn't in the long-term interest of the horse.
Rule, who won four straight starts, was scratched on Monday after trainer Todd Pletcher watched the dark bay colt struggle over the dirt at Churchill Downs in training. Rather than run the horse on a surface he didn't like, WinStar opted to pull out and point him toward the Preakness instead.
They didn't reconsider, even after losing another starter when Sunland Derby winner Endorsement fractured his right front ankle Wednesday morning.
It's a testament to the depth of the farm's racing program that it can still field two quality Derby starters.
"It's a great race, but there's so much more we want to do," Casner said.
Their breeding operation includes top stallions Distorted Humor and Tiznow and they go to great lengths to preserve their foals. All births at WinStar farm take place in a hyperbaric chamber that pumps in 100 percent oxygen. The thinking is the oxygen helps the foals better develop their lungs.
The process has helped the farm safely maneuver through troubled pregnancies. Casner's thinking is simple: you never know which foal will turn into a Derby winner.
Do they have one this weekend? Maybe. Super Saver drew the fourth post for the Derby and will have two-time Derby winning jockey Calvin Borel in the saddle.
The post position means Borel won't have far to go to get to the rail, a place he rode to Derby glory aboard Street Sense in 2007 and Mine That Bird last year.
American Lion and jockey David Flores will start from the seventh post, a number Casner has had some luck with. WinStar won the $6 million Dubai World Cup from that spot last year with homebred colt Well Armed.
WinStar would like nothing more than to break through on Saturday.
Cauthen and Casner recognize they don't have the deep pockets of Darley or Coolmore. No yet, at least.
"At the end of the day, if you look at any sport, it's not that one-year success," Cauthen said. "It's that consistent, always-at-the-top success. It's a marking point. But we've got to win one day."
And if WinStar does, Cauthen will finally have that Derby victory, just a little later than he thought.