BALTIMORE — He’s a third-generation horseman who grew up on his father’s breeding farm in Kentucky’s bluegrass country. Elliott Walden could ride soon after he could walk, and all he ever wanted to do was to train thoroughbreds. For 20 years he excelled, winning more than 50 stakes, including the 1998 Belmont. In 2005, Walden went from the backstretch to the boardroom, where he’s done even better.
Cross currents flow through Walden, a devout Christian with hypercompetitive drive. Minutes after Justify gave Kenny Troutt’s WinStar Farm its second Kentucky Derby trophy, Walden’s fierce joy mingled with humble gratitude.
“We have a plaque in the office that says ‘Proverbs 21:31. The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but victory rests with the Lord,’ ” said Walden, WinStar’s 55-year-old president and CEO. “The Troutts are believers in Jesus Christ, and we are, too. It’s not why we won, it’s really just an opportunity to share the blessings God has given us.”
There’s also the expression “The Lord helps those who help themselves,” not in the Bible but still something to swear by. It’s very difficult to win world-class races without megabucks, and Justify’s owners include many from society’s 1 Percent. WinStar has partnered with China Horse Club, approximately 200 Chinese movers and shakers who reportedly pay $1 million to get in; with Sol Kumin, who oversees a hedge fund with an estimated billion dollars in assets; and the high-profile operations Starlight Racing, Head of Plains Partners and SF Bloodstock.
So the heavy favorite in Saturday’s Preakness also has the backers with the best portfolios. Talk about having an edge.
China Horse Club, which calls itself “Asia’s premier lifestyle, business and thoroughbred racing club,” has operated in America for only three years. Its breakthrough was last year’s Kentucky Oaks victory by Abel Tasman, who like Justify is trained by Bob Baffert. Its leader is Malaysian billionaire Teo Ah Khing, a Harvard-educated architect who designed and built Dubai’s opulent Meydan Race Course.
“Thank you, America, for allowing China Horse Club to set foot here and have all these wonderful partners,” Teo said after the Derby. “But I want to echo what our brother Elliott said. When you are really trusting in the Lord, I think the doors are open. And almost the impossible thing happened for us in the Oaks and again in the Kentucky Derby.”
Many would argue that with impeccably bred horses, bottomless resources and a Hall of Fame trainer, nothing is impossible.
Like all smart investors, WinStar’s group believes in diversifying. It also ran third-place Audible in the Derby, and although Justify is a potential Triple Crown winner, WinStar, China Horse Club and SF Bloodstock will challenge him Saturday with Quip. He skipped the Derby because trainer Rodolphe Brisset didn’t like his energy level, and he was redirected to the Preakness.
“We basically thought through that decision before the Derby, when it wasn’t emotional,” Walden said. “I had to ask myself: ‘If we win the Derby with Justify or Audible, should we run Quip?’ Before the Derby I felt like we should, and we’ve stuck to that.
”If Justify is meant to win the Triple Crown, he’ll beat Quip.”
Even though the deck is stacked in his favor, the unassuming Walden is easy to root for. The 6-5 redhead is unfailingly polite and doesn’t big-time anybody. Fred Hart, an 80-year-old Jericho resident, owned the late Noble Maz, the mother of Noble Indy, who finished 17th in the Derby for WinStar and Repole Stable.
“Elliott Walden is a very loyal person who would go out of his way to acknowledge another person’s role,” Hart said. “He made arrangements to send me a winner’s circle picture after Noble Indy won the Louisiana Derby.”
Besides being a WinStar partner in the stallions Overanalyze and Outwork, Nassau County resident Mike Repole boards about 50 broodmares, yearlings and weanlings at the farm in Versailles, Kentucky.
“It’s great to see the success WinStar has had on the track – Super Saver in the Derby, Drosselmeyer in the Belmont and Classic – and in breeding,” Repole told Newsday. “Elliott and his staff do an amazing job, and I think Elliott knows the game as well as anybody in the industry.”