LOUISVILLE, KY. — Elliott Walden grinned expansively as he ambled up beside the bathing thoroughbreds and clapped Mike Repole on the back.
"I know why you're smiling," Repole said Wednesday morning in his rat-a-tat New York accent. "You've got like 10 horses in the race."
Repole, who co-owns Kentucky Derby contender Noble Indy with Walden's WinStar Farm, was not far off.
WinStar, located near Versailles, Ky., has been one of the most prominent breeding and racing operations in the country for years, with a long string of Kentucky Derby contenders — including 2010 champion Super Saver — to its name.
But Walden, the farm's president and CEO, knows this year is remarkable. In addition to Noble Indy, WinStar co-owns Derby favorite Justify and another strong contender in Florida Derby winner Audible.
The farm also bred Bolt d'Oro, an 8-1 co-fourth choice in the morning line, and sold him for $630,000 as a yearling in 2016.
It's rare for a single owner and breeder to have such an expansive hand in the world's most targeted race, even a farm with Eclipse Awards for best owner and best breeder on its resume.
"Oh, tremendously so," Walden said when asked whether this year stands out. "We came into the 2010 Derby, which we won with Super Saver, with him, we tried to get Drosselmeyer in but he didn't have enough graded earnings, we had American Lion. But they were not quite as good as a group as these horses. I don't know if we'll have the same result. The result worked out pretty good in 2010. But we're going in with a stronger hand."
The WinStar run really began in 2005, when owner Kenny Troutt asked Walden, at the time a successful trainer (he guided Victory Gallop and Menifee to second-place finishes in the Derby), whether he wanted to oversee the entire operation. The third-generation horseman agreed.
The farm stands 22 sires and has about 100 horses in training at any one time. It works with the best trainers in the sport, including Bob Baffert with Justify and Todd Pletcher with Audible and Noble Indy.
Walden wore an Audible hat on Wednesday morning. But he made sure to spread his affection among all the kids, chatting up Repole about Noble Indy and gushing about Justify's physical gifts.
As Repole said, no one on the backstretch had more reasons to smile.
Espinoza finds a horse
Victor Espinoza did not have a ride.
With less than a month to go before the 2018 Kentucky Derby, no trainer had reached out to the man who piloted a Triple Crown winner just three years ago.
Espinoza had gone through his normal winter routine of scouting the best 3-year-olds. He'd even worked out Bolt d'Oro for owner and trainer Mick Ruis. But Ruis' horse was taken by Javier Castellano.
So at age 45, Espinoza sat in limbo, unsure he'd have a chance to seek his fourth Derby victory. Then, his contemporary, John Velazquez, made a choice with cascading consequences.
Given his pick of three Derby horses by Pletcher, Velazquez opted to ride Wood Memorial winner Vino Rosso over Florida Derby winner Audible. Pletcher then phoned Castellano's agent to ask whether he'd leave Bolt d'Oro for Audible. Castellano said yes.
Ruis had asked Espinoza to work Bolt d'Oro with such an eventuality in mind. So when Castellano decamped, he knew exactly whom to call.
Espinoza said he's thrilled with the way his situation played out, because he's convinced Bolt d'Oro can win Saturday.
The 8-1 choice in the morning line lost to Good Magic in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and to Derby favorite Justify in the Santa Anita Derby. But Espinoza is convinced he possesses untapped potential.
"The last race, I don't think he ran his race," he said, referring to Santa Anita. "I think he can do better than that, and I think the Kentucky Derby is the right time for him to show up. … I think I can improve him a little bit more, and that's all we need."
Espinoza has lived with the twists and turns of Derby fortune long enough that he shrugged off this year's waiting game.
"There's times when I have four or five horses, and none of them make it," he said. "Then there are times when, like now, I don't have anything, and next thing I know, I'm on one of the top five horses in the race. So I don't even get into the negative thinking of it."
Mendelssohn, the 5-1 second choice in the morning line, remained in quarantine Wednesday morning after his arrival from Ireland earlier in the week.
He walked the shedrow and is expected to hit the track at Churchill for the first time on Thursday morning, one of the most anticipated debuts of Derby week.
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