Elliott Walden has won only one Triple Crown race as a trainer. After losing in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness to Real Quiet, his colt, Victory Gallop, got up in the final stride to beat Real Quiet by a nose in the 1998 Belmont Stakes.
It was the second year in a row that Real Quiet’s trainer, Bob Baffert, had won the first two legs and failed in the third.
This year, Baffert has his eye on his second Triple Crown, having won it in 2015 with American Pharoah. And standing by his side will be Walden, whose WinStar Farm is the majority owner of Justify, the prohibitive 1-2 favorite in Saturday’s 143rd running of the Preakness Stakes. If he wins at Pimlico, he’ll go to Belmont Park in three weeks to try to complete the Triple Crown.
“[Justify] is as good as anything I’ve been around,” Walden said during a break from the rain that has pelted the Baltimore area for two days and will continue through Saturday.
“I think Victory Gallop would be in the same breath. Anything else would be less than that.”
Walden is the front guy for an ownership group that took up most of the stage at the post-race news conference after the Kentucky Derby.
How did he earn the spokesman role?
“Because we have the biggest percentage [of the horse],” Walden said with a chuckle.
The complex partnership started when Justify was a yearling purchased for $500,000 by WinStar Farm, the China Horse Club and SF Racing. In March, SF Racing sold a share to Starlight Racing, headed by Jack Wolf. Also in March, a share in the horse was sold to Sol Kumin’s Head of Plains partners.
This would seemingly be a nightmare for Baffert with so many bosses to answer to.
“I basically just talk to Elliott,” Baffert said. “That’s who I report to, and he reports back to everybody else. For him, it’s a little bit complicated, but they have a system and they’re pretty good. It’s pretty simple, really.”
It also gets complicated that Walden’s WinStar, China Horse Club and SF Racing have a second horse in the race, meaning Walden has a quarter of the horses in the eight-horse field. Quip, who didn’t race in the Kentucky Derby, is the 12-1 third choice.
Walden, 55, has been around horses his entire life.
“My grandfather owned a farm called Shadowland Farm, and he helped make bluegrass seed that is used all over the state of Kentucky, and for horses, it’s very good,” Walden said.
His father was a full-time horse breeder, and the family lived at Dearborn Farm, just a few minutes away from WinStar’s Versailles, Ky., home.
“He stood a few stallions, the most notable being Timeless Moment and No Robbery,” Walden said. “Timeless Moment is the sire of Gilded Time, who is the damsire of Audible.”
The point of all that lineage is that Audible, who finished third in the Kentucky Derby, is also owned by the same collection that owns Justify.
Before he got into the mystery of breeding, Walden went after his true passion: training.
“It felt like the farm was too slow for me, and I liked the action of the racetrack,” he said. “I worked for [trainers] LeRoy Jolley and John Ward early on and then went from there.”
In 2002, Walden took over the training of WinStar’s stable and soon was the vice president of racing and bloodstock services. In 2005, he stopped training, having won 1,017 races and almost $46 million in purses, and became the racing manager for WinStar. He became president and chief executive in 2010.
Walden credits his time as a trainer for his success after returning to the farm.
“One thing about training, there’s a daily regimen, a lot of work, seven days a week,” Walden said. “That lends itself to making good decisions. It gives you a good foundation because there is so much detail that goes into training.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a groom or a hot-walker, if you’ve worked on a racetrack, you know how to work.”
Justify was first placed with trainer Rodolphe Brisset, who now has Quip, before being moved to Baffert after the Breeders’ Cup.
“I think they took their time with him because I’ve heard Elliott say he was just a big colt,” Baffert said.
Now he’s an even bigger colt with bigger expectations.
Asked what a Triple Crown would mean to him after a lifetime in racing, Walden couldn’t find the words.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I just don’t know. But I think any time you can go down in the history books with something established, it would be special.”