Sitting inside his office four days removed from the 136th Kentucky Derby, WinStar Farm President Doug Cauthen pulled out a well-worn catalog from the 2006 Keeneland November mixed sale and recounted the details that produced one of the more surreal moments he and his co-workers will ever experience.
As he came across the page for hip No. 955, a bay mare named Supercharger, Cauthen grinned slightly as he read the comments that helped prompt the farm to spend the $160,000 it took to secure the daughter of A.P. Indy in foal to Maria's Mon.
"I've got 'pretty, 16 hands, lots of quality, like her sister,'" Cauthen read. "Up in the corner it says, 'Great with Distorted Humor ... crosses well with Maria's Mon, Speights-town.'
"The rest is history."
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The decision the WinStar Farm team made that day serves as a microcosm for everything Bill Casner and Kenny Troutt's nearly 1,600-acre operation stands for.
Because they trusted their collective judgment, because they studied the details and saw the big picture, WinStar Farm has been able to reach a level of success most players in the Thoroughbred industry only dream of attaining.
That foal Supercharger was carrying more than three years ago is now known as Super Saver, winner of last week's Kentucky Derby.
While most will remember Super Saver's victory as the one that ended trainer Todd Pletcher's 0-for-24 drought in the race and gave popular jockey Calvin Borel a third career Derby victory, the bay colt also represents the first Derby winner both bred and owned by WinStar Farm.
Though it might seem like the farm's signature white silks with the green and black star have been claiming racing's biggest prizes for ages, it was only 10 years ago that Casner and his longtime friend Troutt purchased the former Prestonwood Farm hoping to create a racing and breeding program that would one day be mentioned in the same breath as Coolmore, Darley and Lane's End.
Casner and Troutt — 1990s partners in a hugely successful multi-level marketing venture called Excel Communications — aren't the first businessmen to come into the Thoroughbred world with money in their pockets and grand ideas in their heads. But unlike many who have stumbled trying to conquer the sport's unforgiving nature, Casner and Troutt have reached racing's pinnacle in meteoric fashion.
Three years after coming into its current existence, WinStar bred 2003 Derby winner Funny Cide. Three years after that, the farm had the first of its now 11 Kentucky Derby starters in Sharp Humor and eventual Grade I winner Bluegrass Cat, who finished second to Barbaro in 2006.
In addition to developing such Grade I winners as Well Armed, Colonel John and Any Given Saturday, WinStar stands two of the top sires in Distorted Humor and Tiznow among its seven stallions.
So when Casner, Troutt and the rest of the WinStar crew climbed atop the podium in the Kentucky Derby winner's circle, it was a symbol of the meticulously groomed, state-of-the-art farm's rise within the sport.
"If you're going to make this a business, you have to do it at the very highest level," said Casner, a Texas native who began galloping horses at age 15 at Sunland Park. "I spent 16 years on the racetrack before I left it at the age of 31, and Kenny had a farm in Nebraska for several years so ... sometimes we laugh and tell each other we figured out how not to do it.
"Most importantly you have to surround yourself with the most ethical, hardworking, passionate people that you can. We hired people with the right kind of attitude, and that's the foundation of any company. Every day, Kenny and I can trust our people to do what is in the best interest of our horses."
Such a concept might sound simple, but a glance around the WinStar grounds reveals a ton of intricacies that make its success come to life.
From the groom who picks up the few stray rocks that could potentially inflict a hoof bruise to the managers who carefully analyze pedigrees and determine matings, there is no such thing as a minor role on the WinStar roster.
Building the program
Included in the package when Casner and Troutt purchased Prestonwood was a chestnut stallion named Distorted Humor who had been a multiple graded stakes winner on the track, but wasn't considered the most fashionable of stud prospects.
While not overwhelming in physical size, Distorted Humor has become the massive cornerstone of WinStar's foundation, emerging as one of the leading sires of his generation with 86 career stakes winners to date and more than $66 million in progeny earnings.
When Distorted Humor earned leading freshman sire honors in 2002, the son of Forty Niner attained the commercial respect so critical early in a stallion's career.
But after his New York-bred son Funny Cide won the first two legs of the Triple Crown in 2003, everyone suddenly wanted to know where this rising sire stood and who helped get him there.
"That was life-changing for WinStar," Casner said. "Distorted Humor produced a Derby winner from his first crop and very few have done that.
"In the career of a stallion, you have to hit early because it takes a tremendous amount of money to fund these organizations. The core of our business plan is developing stallions. That's what keeps 100-plus people in our organization employed and keeps our farm viable."
The artful management of Distorted Humor's career allowed him to command an advertised fee of $300,000 at one point, but it wasn't just his book of mares that underwent an upgrade over the years.
By working both the public and private sales areas, WinStar expanded its broodmare band from 50 to around 100, all the while seeking pedigrees like that of Supercharger's and her full sister She's a Winner — the dam of Bluegrass Cat — that could produce classic-type runners.
WinStar also took risks that have worked out for the best. Part of the reason Supercharger didn't command a higher price at auction was because she failed to get in foal four times from 2000 to 2006.
Since delivering Super Saver in 2007, Supercharger has had three healthy foals, including a Medaglia d'Oro colt this April.
"What they've tried to do is put together the best people and then accumulate the best horses and best bloodlines and the rest will fall into place so to speak," said Pletcher, who has trained a number of WinStar's top runners, including Super Saver. "It sounds like a simple game plan but it is difficult to execute. They've obviously made some very smart purchases, like Supercharger, and they've made the right decisions along the way."
Simply throwing cash at problems isn't enough in a business that is trying to remain profitable. WinStar has recognized the need to take some money off the table, even if it means losing a potential talent.
At the 2002 Keeneland July yearling sale, WinStar sold eventual European champion One Cool Cat for $3.1 million to Coolmore Stud. During the 2006 Keeneland September yearling auction, WinStar watched the first foal out of their Grade I winning mare Awesome Humor bring $8.2 million.
"I think they've been very blessed but they also keep a business perspective and they have a plan," said Duncan Taylor, president of Taylor Made Farm, which has partnered with WinStar on its stallions Tiznow, Speightstown and Sharp Humor and consigned several of the farm's top horses at auction. "When they had Any Given Saturday and Bluegrass Cat back to back, they kept one (Bluegrass Cat) and sold one (Any Given Saturday to Darley) ... and they take those profits and go back in.
"In the horse business it's hard to be a lot better than everyone else in one aspect. But if you're just a little better in a lot of aspects, it adds up to a competitive advantage."
Though WinStar has reaped hefty returns, it has wisely done the majority of its spending in the upper middle market, leaving others to engage in the seven- and eight-figure battles.
"Our mission is to be profitable ... that's why we sold horses like One Cool Cat," said Cauthen, brother of Triple Crown-winning jockey Steve Cauthen and Four Star Sales managing partner Kerry Cauthen. "We believed he was a very good horse, but in our business model we couldn't afford to keep him even though we wanted to.
"There is a limited number you can keep because costs are high and you have to generate cash. That's why we syndicate stallions; we can't afford to keep them all and we want to partner with other breeders to hope that we can all succeed together."
If there is one theme that keeps coming up around WinStar Farm, it's that they are indeed all in this together.
Power in personalities
Perhaps the only thing more striking than the aesthetic beauty of the farm are the different personalities that have converged to drive the WinStar machine.
Casner and Troutt are the definition of yin and yang. While Casner is the quintessential cowboy with his Texas drawl, confident swagger and outspoken personality, the intensely private Troutt had to be talked into joining in the post-race news conference after the Derby.
"It actually provides a really good balance for us," said Tony Cissell, general manager for WinStar. "Both of them are highly intelligent and both of them are very motivated. Bill obviously rode and trained horses so he's more involved in the horsemanship aspect of things. Where he is more involved in horses, Kenny is more involved in the business side. But the one thing everyone is focused on is trying to raise good horses."
Implementing such techniques as the use of a hyperbaric oxygen chamber in birthing and healing processes is one way WinStar has tried to aid its horses' development. Having horsemen on the roster such as Cauthen, pedigree analyst John Prather, and former trainer Elliott Walden is another.
"We've been asked a lot over the last two weeks what makes WinStar special and I really feel it's the team," said Walden, who trained such standouts as champion Victory Gallop before moving into his current role as the farm's vice president and racing manager. "From the guys in the barn that come get the horses to the guys that care for the mares to our owners who are very generous with their resources."
Added Cauthen, "Everybody from us, all the way down to the groom we hired last week are integral parts to making this happen. I know I'm not indispensable and the day I think I am will be the day I'm not getting it done."
In the coming days, the racing world will see if Super Saver can take the next step toward greatness when he starts in the Preakness Stakes on May 15.
Just like the colt who has vaulted them into the national spotlight, the WinStar Farm crew is attempting to maintain its top form in the months and years to come.
"I always say that if we're still doing the same things tomorrow that we're doing today, we're not moving forward," Casner said. "We have to be better today than we were yesterday and if one of us doesn't do our part, we're letting our horses down."