Wiedmer: Walden basking in Saver glow

Wiedmer: Walden basking in Saver glow

May 15th, 2010 by Mark Wiedmer in Opinion Columns

Elliott Walden always expected that his first Kentucky Derby win would come as a horse trainer. Especially after he was the No. 3 trainer in the country in 1999.

But then WinStar Farm bumped Walden up from head trainer to vice president and racing manager a few years ago, turning the day-to-day coaching of its 175 horses over to Todd Pletcher.

Changing jobs didn't change Walden's warm feelings for the Derby, which is run about 75 miles from his childhood home in Midway, Ky. So when WinStar's Super Saver won the sport's biggest prize two weeks ago with a stunning ride by jockey Calvin Borel, Walden couldn't help but shed a joyous tear or two.

"I'd dreamed about this my whole life," he said this week from Pimlico Race Track in Baltimore, where Saver will try to win the Preakness -- the second leg of horse racing's Triple Crown -- today at 6:05 p.m.

"Ever since I first thought of becoming a trainer, I'd thought about what it would be like to win the Derby, and it's fantastic. Even though I'm in a different job now with WinStar, I still feel a big part of this horse and this win."

In fact, it was Walden who strongly encouraged Pletcher to put Borel atop the lightly raced Saver. Having failed to win the Derby with his first 24 entries, Pletcher listened, then allowed Borel to do what he does better than any jockey anywhere come Derby day -- take to the rail and follow it to the finish line.

Despite a 19-horse field and a track so watery that Churchill Downs officials briefly considered running the most exciting two minutes in sports after dark, Bo-Rail -- as his fans have dubbed him -- never wavered from the game plan.

"Calvin has the ability to stay focused yet relaxed in a defining moment," Walden said. "With a lot of jockeys, even some of the best ones, the pressure builds and they worry about getting blocked. Instead of saving ground, they start moving to the outside. Calvin knows how to take advantage of that."

Or as Bo-Rail likes to tell the media, "I've just always been taught that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, so I go for the rail."

He took such advantage of the rail that he won his third Derby in four years, the best four-year run by a jockey in the 136-year history of the race.

And almost as soon as Bo-Rail won he jumped into Walden's arms, soon to tell the world, "I think I've got the Triple Crown winner this year."

Within 45 minutes Walden had received 150 text messages. Over 90 e-mails filled his computer by that night. His cousins from Chattanooga, the Pettway clan, phoned to offer their congratulations.

"I think they may have been more excited than I was, if that's possible," Walden said.

Then there was former NBA player and coach Avery Johnson, a close friend of WinStar's owners.

"Avery came by the farm on Sunday morning (the day after the Derby)," Walden said. "He was so hoarse from screaming for Super Saver that you'd have thought he was coaching the NBA Finals."

But can Super Saver do it again? Can he follow his mile-and-a-quarter victory in the Derby with a mile-and-three-sixteenths win in the Preakness? Can Bo-Rail again own the inside? Will Super Saver still be fit and fresh? Will there again be an off track, which seemed to favor Super Saver?

Even without Derby runner-up Ice Box -- who's sitting out the Preakness in favor of the Belmont -- this is no gimme for Super Saver, even should it rain. Lookin At Lucky, who was anything but lucky in drawing the rail in the Derby, will break from gate 7 this time around, right next to Super Saver in gate 8 in the 12-horse field.

Saver and Borel also must deal with five-time Preakness winning trainer D. Wayne's Lukas's duo of Dublin and Northern Giant, along with the dark horse Caracortado, who hasn't raced since the first week of April.

Still, Walden said, "I like our chances in the Preakness. After that we'll wait and see."

Win the Preakness and we'll all have to wait only three more weeks until the Belmont Stakes to learn if Bo-Rail and Super Saver can deliver their troubled sport its first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

If that happens, the lords of thoroughbred racing just might ask Walden and WinStar to rename their colt Super Savior.