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The Silver Spotlight - April 2011 - Kentucky Derby Winner, Bill Casner

Q & A with Kentucky Derby Winner and WinStar Farms Co-Founder, Bill Casner.

Although this session is unusually lengthy, we hope you enjoy the descriptive responses provided by Mr. Casner; we didn’t want you to miss any of the insightful details shared.


Q: It’s been almost a year since Super Saver’s Kentucky Derby win. Have you and your wife been able to come to terms with the impact this has had on your life, or is it still this incredibly surreal experience?

A: You know, it was one of those moments in time that was almost totally surreal. Super Saver was the eleventh horse that we had started in the Kentucky Derby and it doesn’t matter how many horses you have in that race, it is the most difficult race in the world to win.  On average, 35,000 foals are born every year, and only 20 horses make the cut. So you have to have a very, very good horse, that horse has to peak at the right moment in time, the stars have to be aligned, and then you need to have an incredible amount of luck to negotiate a 20 horse field. We were incredibly blessed to have the stars align for us that day; it was just one of those incredible moments. I saw Jack Van Berg a couple of days after the race. Jack of course won the Kentucky Derby with Alysheba, and he said “Bill, your life will never be the same again”, and in the weeks after the Derby I started to understand what he meant.  Super Saver was the second derby winner that we bred; the first horse was Funny Cide, but we sold him. It is incredibly difficult to even breed a derby winner, so we felt very fortunate to race one and win!


Q: Can you take us through some of the moments that stick out about that day? Was the wet track a concern at all for your team?

A: It had been wet all week at Churchill, and the horse had worked well over the track, so I don’t think we worried too much about it, but you always worry about safety issues. You worry about the horse getting in behind other horses and catching mud in their face. Calvin Borel certainly knows his way around Churchill Downs and saved ground every step of the way, put the horse on the fence and got through. You know, Calvin’s silks were clean when he crossed the line, so that shows he caught very little dirt that day.


Q: I would imagine that even having the opportunity to contend in the Derby is one of the most difficult challenges in sports, that everything leading up to it must go perfectly as planned. Was there something different about Super Saver’s path than the other legitimate contenders that WinStar has had in recent years?

A: Coming up to the Derby this past year, we had four horses that had qualified…Super Saver, a horse called Rule, American Lion and Endorsement. I think we felt like Endorsement might have been the horse we had the best opportunity with. He ran a monster race in the Sunland Park Derby, but unfortunately in his last work approaching the Derby, he fractured a cannon bone.  Super Saver had trained very well with no glitches and ran a huge race in the Arkansas Derby, just getting beat by a nose.  He showed he was coming up to the race very very well, so yes, we did have a high level of hope and confidence that he’d be up for the task.


Q: I’m sure the victory was even sweeter considering Super Saver was homebred at WinStar. Did you personally take an active role in his development?

A: I can’t say that I did, but there are some of the horses that I’ve had that I really take a hands on approach. Well Armed was a horse that won the Dubai World Cup; I had him at my place in Texas for 10 months, rode him, swam him, and did everything myself. With these horses though, it doesn’t matter which one it is, it’s always the culmination of an entire team working in concert to make sure that horse has the best opportunity for success, especially on that first Saturday in May. It really starts from the time that mare is bred. The pregnancy has to be managed and sustained, and then the day that she foals is when many of the mine fields start to occur. It takes a dedicated team. Our broodmare manager foaled that mare out, probably at 2:00 in the morning, we have over 100 mares, and he foals them all out personally. He gets up when most of those mares foal in the middle of the night, for six months he is sleep deprived. His team will imprint that foal, for several days after it will go through an imprinting process where that foal gains confidence in humans and gains trust. It’ll spend four or five months in the broodmare division then that foal will move over to the yearling division. It’s a whole different team that will take charge of that yearling, and again they’ll have to manage that horse well, make sure he is taken care of and brought up every day out of the fields, their temperatures are taken, they are looked over for every knick and cut, their confirmation is always evaluated. With the blacksmith their feet need to be trimmed in accordance with their confirmation; and then it goes to the breaking division, and that is where a whole different set of lessons start. We use a lot of the natural horsemanship methods to break our horses. Pat Parelli helped us out a few years ago and brought some riders in. We created a program where we break our thoroughbred’s yearlings according to the Ray Hunt/Pat Parelli/Clint Black method. Clint Black has helped us in the past by providing riders for us, but we like to use western type riders for those early training lessons. Then they’ll graduate to tack and go into the training division with our farm trainer Richard Budge, and then his team will take charge of that horse. Then the horse after a period of time will go off to the trainer. So much of that time, and the hands that have been on that horse, they’ve been with hundreds of people in the program, and then when it goes off to the trainer at the racetrack (Todd Pletcher, Shannon Ritter, Eoin Harty, Billy Mott) it is their time to take over and mold him into a racehorse. So it’s a long process, and it involves a number of people, and it is paramount that each one of them does their job well.


Q: Can you give us a little insight to Todd Pletcher’s philosophy and routine?

A: Todd is a very very good trainer, as are all of our other trainers.  Of course Bill Mott is a hall of famer, and he won the Belmont for us this year with Drosselmeyer. Shannon Ritter is not a well know trainer, but she did an extraordinary job with Endorsement. All of them are very very skilled, dedicated horsemen who have honed their craft. There is an old saying on the racetrack that good horses make good trainers, and there are a lot of trainers out there that are very good at what they do, but maybe they haven’t had that opportunity to really train high level horses.  Todd Pletcher was born and raised on the Sunland Park racetrack in New Mexico where his father, J.J. Pletcher, trained horses.  I came on the track at Sunland in 1963, so the history there is kind of ironic.  Todd has become a very successful horseman and it is because of his high skill level with a horse.


Q: Calvin Borel was the story of last years Derby, winning three out of the last four. Obviously Calvin is already a legend in his own right, but what else are important considerations when pairing up a jockey with a horse?

A: You just always try to get the rider that you think will fit your horse. Certainly Calvin seems to fit most horses in the Derby. He can ride any type of race. Super Saver laid a little closer, fifth or sixth, Mine That Bird was dead last. Calvin always figures out a way to save ground and take the shortest path to the wire, that’s his riding style. He has a way of getting through, a lot of riders are afraid to go down on the inside because they are afraid of getting stopped, they are afraid they won’t have anywhere to go. Calvin doesn’t worry about that, he always tries to take the shortest path and he always seems to find a way through. David Flores road American Lion for us and put a very good ride on him. We’ve had any number of riders in the past, Ramon Dominguez rode Bluegrass Cat for us in our very first Derby and ran second, put an extraordinary ride on him. We were just in a year that had a horse called Barboro in front of us who nobody was going to outrun, so we were very fortunate to run second to him. All of the riders that generally ride in the Derby are top notch, they’re a very high-level rider…the best. They have to have the horse underneath them and a bit of luck.


Q: The horse racing industry has seen its own challenges in recent years, partly due to the economic downturn. You are a past chairman of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, as well as an entrepreneur of several successful businesses. What do you think the thoroughbred industry needs to do in order to thrive in the 21st century? Do you think any of these principals apply to other equine associations?

A: They need to adapt! They need to understand and have a vision of our changing markets and changing dynamics of what the consumer wants. They need to embrace social media as a tool for marketing our industry. We just always have seemed to be a bit behind in the visionary curve, we didn’t embrace television when the other sports entities saw it as an opportunity to create fans. There was a fear that people wouldn’t come to the track if they could watch it on television. Then with the advent of lottos and expanded casino gaming horse racing was no longer the number one spectator sport in the world. It actually was though up until about 1980.  Horse racing was the number one spectator sport in North America; attendance was higher than baseball, certainly higher than basketball, and higher than football. We survived because we had a monopoly on gambling, it was a huge competitive edge.  But when the monopoly ended and we had to compete with other sports, we were very deficient in marketing ourselves in the way that the other sports industries did. I’m very optimistic; there are some changes that are happening that should be very positive. We have just an incredible spectator sport. When people come they have the time of their life, they all rave about the experience, especially when it is on an event day like the Derby or Breeders Cup. We just have to get better at presenting our product.


Q: In your off time, you’ve been known to be an avid team roper and rodeo fan. Is this a hobby you’ve been involved with since your youth, or something you picked up later in life?

A: I used to rope calves as a kid, I had a rope in my hand from the time I was about seven years old. I spent a lot of time on my cousin’s ranch in central Texas and learned to pasture rope…heck, we roped everything from big steers to goats out in the pasture. I entered kids rodeos, AJRA rodeos, and roped calves. Back then in team roping you tied off on both ends, and we roped huge cattle. They just started to dally in California and Arizona back then, this was in the 60s and early 70s. Of course when it progressed to Texas is when it really exploded and became so popular. I left the racetrack in 1980. I was 31 years old and had to go out into the real world, but I started roping again shortly thereafter and it was a way for me to be involved with a horse. I was on the racetrack for 15 years and never made a living with anything other than a horse, there came a time my career wasn’t going where I wanted it, so I had to make choices for my family. We moved back to Texas, and it was about 16 years before I came back to the racetrack. Roping was something that I enjoyed doing, a great social event…it’s a lot of fun. It’s a way for an old man to compete on a horse!


Q: Have you found any parallels between what makes a good thoroughbred racehorse and a good rope horse?

A: You know, they are one in the same. The good ones are so incredibly rare, one out of a thousand. I’ve spent years trying to really find those really good rope horses; we’ve done the same with racehorses. The elite ones, the ones that are the very best are rare. The qualities that make a good rope horse and a good racehorse are much the same. The number one thing, the most essential factor, is they have to be an incredibly strong good minded horse. They have to be able to deal with pressure in a positive way.  Speed is critical to a rope horse and critical to a racehorse.  A rope horse has to have that explosive speed. Both of them have to be able to take training, and have durability because both roping and running races puts a lot of pressure on their structure. They just have different tasks, but the requirements are basically the same.


Q: Do you have plans to go to many ropings this year? What about winning a gold buckle at the USTRC Finals?

A: We generally rope in the USTRC Finals every year. We go to Reno (Reno Rodeo Invitational) in June, we’ll go to Denny Gentry’s World Series of Team Roping at the South Point in December, and we’ll go to a few roping in between. I used to go to a lot of smaller ropings. When I’m in Texas I’ll practice three times a week, I just love getting on a horse and chasing cows. Riding a horse to me is the best exercise there is, it frees my mind, and it is something I don’t ever get tired of. You know, I just like being on a horse.


Q: Your wife Susan seems to share your competitive spirit and passion for horses. Has she been able to win any Gist buckles of her own?

A: Susan wears the Gist World Champion buckle from our paint horse Bar Shadows Girl, otherwise known as Lucy. Lucy has won the APHA World Show twice in healing, once in heading and once in calf roping.  Susan loves the horses and was my best help when I was training on the racetrack. She had a connection with a mare at the 2001 Keeneland Nov. Sales and she bought the mare---its Susan’s one and only mare and has produced two Derby starters, Colonel John and Mr. Hotstuff both G1 horses. I related how difficult it is to get a horse in the Derby so to have a mare that has produced 2 is pretty amazing. She has a good eye for a horse. 

Q: You are a founding member of the Race for Education. Can you tell us a little about the foundation?

A: The Race for Education is an organization that was founded to provide educational opportunities for backside workers, children of backside workers, children of farm workers and children of people in the horse industry. We’ve provided scholarships for a number of deserving kids all across the country.  Our model student is not always that straight A student, those are more of a mainstream scholarship student. We look for those kids that have come from horse families that make their living with a horse, or kids that really have a burning desire to make their living with a horse. A lot of those kids have to go to work and school at the same time, they have what my mother used to refer to as “gumption”, and they’ve got that work ethic. They are kids that work very hard and do the best with what they have.


Q: What are some of the ways our readers can help with the foundation? In addition to financial support, are there volunteer opportunities available?

A: Sometimes we have people or organizations that would like to have a scholarship that has a particular model for a student. The racing Turf Writers Association sponsors a scholarship to a journalism student that wants to become a turf writer, there are things like that for people that want to support on a broader basis. Any contribution is gladly welcomed; volunteer time is something that is really special. The gift of time is something we certainly appreciate. We are a 501c3 based out of Lexington, Kentucky, but we support kids in every state.


For more information about The Race for Education or to make a donation, visit