BALTIMORE - In 2007, 37,337 foals were born in North America. When 2010 began, several hundred were being pointed for the Kentucky Derby. On May 1, 20 were in the starting gate. And Super Saver was first to the wire.
If you go back to when Maria's Mon was bred to Supercharger, that Derby moment was 4 years in the making. On Saturday, 2 weeks after the moment of a lifetime for a thoroughbred owner/breeder, the same colt, if he is to continue in play for the elusive Triple Crown, must run in the Preakness at Pimlico.
"The biggest challenge is just that it's back in 14 days and there's no changing it," said Super Saver's trainer, Todd Pletcher.
No, there is not. The Preakness is 14 days after the Derby, the Belmont Stakes 21 days after the Preakness. And, if this were easy, some horse would have won all three since Affirmed last did it in 1978.
Super Saver is not Affirmed. Or Smarty Jones. Or Sunday Silence.
But Super Saver is the Derby winner in a year when the only star 3-year-old, Eskendereya, already has been retired. And, regardless of whether Super Saver wins Saturday at Pimlico and/or at Belmont Park, the colt will be the Derby winner forever.
It gave Pletcher that elusive Derby win. It gave jockey Calvin Borel his third Derby in 4 years. And it gave the WinStar Farm team of Bill Casner and Kenny Troutt a moment they have been building toward all their lives.
Super Saver's owners met at the now defunct Ak-Sar-Ben track in Nebraska. Then, in their 20s, they were trying to claim the same horse. Each got out of the horse business a few years later. Troutt founded Excel Communications, a long-distance company, and Casner started B & R Equipment, a heavy-equipment company.
After a decade-and-a-half out of the game, they bought into Victory Gallop, a colt that denied Real Quiet the 1998 Triple Crown by an inch.
A decade ago, they bought out the Preston brothers and renamed Prestonwood Farm in Versailles, Ky., calling it WinStar. They bred 2003 Derby winner Funny Cide. They bred and owned Bluegrass Cat, Derby runner-up to Barbaro in 2006. They bred and own Super Saver. Not bad for two Texans who love the business and the sport.
"I tell you something I learned last year," Troutt said. "We had three in and we got beat and I was feeling sorry for myself and then I got to thinking about how there's a lot of people who would trade places with us, so I kind of looked at it a little bit different this year."
Troutt's 9-year-old daughter Savannah had a feeling, saying, "Dad, I think this is our year. I really, really believe we are going to win the Derby."
So, they did. They invested millions in the game. They were rewarded with its biggest prize.
Casner was able to celebrate with his partner, his wife Susan and daughter Kayce. His other daughter, Karri, was killed in the 2002 terrorist nightclub bombing in Bali.
You never recover from that. But you do go on. The owners persevered.
"We first met in Omaha, Neb., when we were both 25 years old," Casner said of the partnership. "If you're in this game, you always dream about the Kentucky Derby. Now, at that time, did we really believe that we could win the Kentucky Derby? I think the answer would probably be 'no' to that.
"But the one thing that we did learn, is that if you're going to do this business, you've got to do it at the very highest echelon. We both left the racetrack when we were about 31 years old, and at that time, we both walked away from it and really vowed that we wouldn't come back unless we could come back at a high level."
They have now reached the highest level. Early in Derby week, WinStar had four Derby horses. Then, they had three and two. Turned out they only needed one, the right one.
"A friend asked me if I am getting tired of the phone calls," Casner said. "Bluegrass Cat ran second in the 2006 Derby and nobody called, so this is pretty special."
Pletcher was that well-documented 0-for-24 in the Derby. Showing just how many times Derby fever has overcome common sense and how reality quickly intervenes in Louisville, Pletcher is just 0-for-4 in the Preakness. This year, the trainer is appearing with the Derby winner.
Elliott Walden was Victory Gallop's trainer. Now, he is WinStar's racing manager. Pletcher is one of the farm's several trainers.
"Nobody beats him to the barn in the morning," Walden said.
Pletcher is stoic, which some take as a weakness. Walden sees it as strength.
"He's humble," Walden said. "He lets his horses do the talking, and he's a great communicator for a guy who has had as much success as he's had. There are times that he makes us feel like we are almost helping him make the decision and he wants to involve everybody."
The big decision with Super Saver was employing Borel. Walden suggested they run the colt last fall at Churchill Downs after several good efforts in New York. When you go to Churchill, you get Calvin, if you want to win. Borel won that stake in November and won that stake on the first Saturday in May.
"He is fearless," trainer Bob Baffert said of Borel. "He rides with so much confidence and he knows what he is going to do. He just gets on top of that rail but he needs a good horse."
And Super Saver is a good horse. The Derby win was no fluke. It just wasn't so overwhelming that the gate won't be nearly full on Saturday. Still, the jockey won't lack for confidence.
"My only concern going into the race, to see if he still had a punch, and when I got him to quarter pole, I still had some horse under me," Borel said. "When I went around one horse and got to the other one, I knew nothing was going to run him down."
Nothing did. The Preakness is 110 yards shorter than the Derby. The race, however, will unfold differently. Nothing is a given. Just getting a horse to the starting gate is a minor miracle.
"It's just an elusive race to win," Casner said. "From the time that foal is born to the time he crosses that wire at Churchill, everything has to go perfect."
It did that day. The next big day is Saturday. *