LOUISVILLE — Only six weeks were left before the 135th Kentucky Derby, yet the white and green silks of WinStar Farm were nowhere to be seen on the lineup of contenders.
For some racing operations, that would be cause for major angst.
However, recent history should have told everyone the scenario wasn't going to last.
In the span of about a month and a half, the Derby hopes for Bill Casner and Kenny Troutt's WinStar Farm went from grim to abundant as their charges Hold Me Back, Advice and Mr. Hot Stuff have all since earned their way into the starting gate.
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The auspicious domino effect began when Hold Me Back won the Grade II Lane's End Stakes at Turfway on March 21 and reached its peak when the late-developing Advice upset the field in the Grade II Coolmore Lexington Stakes at Keeneland on April 18.
Most remarkable about WinStar's late surge is it keeps up one of the more notable streaks in racing.
This year marks the fourth consecutive season WinStar will have at least two starters in the Derby, having sent out Colonel John and Court Vision in 2008, Any Given Saturday and Cowtown Cat in 2007, and Bluegrass Cat and Sharp Humor in 2006.
"There is so much good fortune that needs to happen to win a Derby, you just need to have the opportunities to come in here with live horses, and for the most part we've done that," said Elliott Walden, vice president and racing manager for WinStar. "I would say other than Colonel John (sixth last year), this bunch have as good a chance as anything we've brought. It's exciting to have this opportunity."
Much of the reason WinStar has mastered the daunting task of simply getting a horse to Derby Day is a breeding program they feel is built for classic success.
The Versailles-based farm stands two of the industry's top stallions in Distorted Humor, sire of 2003 Kentucky Derby winner Funny Cide, and Tiznow, sire of both Colonel John and Mr. Hot Stuff.
In addition, Bluegrass Cat — who gave WinStar its best Derby finish when he ran second three years ago — joined the stallion roster in 2007 and stands for $40,000.
"It starts with your factories, your stallions and your broodmares," Walden said. "We look for horses with classic bloodlines without going too far down that road. When Kenny and Bill bought WinStar Farm (in 2000), Distorted Humor was thrown in with the furniture. I mean, he was at a point in his career where ... nobody knew what he was.
"He got the farm started off in the right way and ... Bill and Kenny have given us great tools to work with."
WinStar makes no bones about its goal is to have Derby runners each season — and that long-term focus has paid its own dividends.
"Everything is geared toward getting our horses started in mid-summer, not April, because I just feel like that's too hard on them as far as longevity goes," Walden said. "It doesn't mean we don't want to run in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, because we do, but we're looking to gain experience, too."
No more is that patience evident than in WinStar's current trio of Derby starters. After his fifth-place finish in the Remsen Stakes last November, Hold Me Back did not start again until his Lane's End triumph in March.
Advice was off for nearly four months after his ninth-place finish in last fall's Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland. Mr. Hot Stuff didn't make his career debut until October.
"They have a very patient approach, they're not afraid to give their horses plenty of time to develop," said Todd Pletcher, trainer of Advice. "Their success is probably a product of their entire program. Obviously they're breeding good horses, and they're buying good horses.
"I think they've identified what they're looking for and are very good at doing it."