When I was in Louisville for the Breeders’ Cup, I had the pleasure of hearing Bill Casner, co-founder of WinStar Farm and owner of Well Armed, deliver the keynote address at the Race Track Chaplaincy of America’s White Horse Award Luncheon.
While I knew the the basics behind the story of Well Armed, who made a miraculous recovery from a broken hip and returned to the races to win the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I), I had never heard it told in Casner’s own words. It’s a story I will never forget.
I was so touched by Casner’s speech that I thought I would recount some of the highlights for you in this blog, along with some recent photos of Well Armed, who is now enjoying his retirement in Texas.
Casner started his speech by talking about the word “gumption,” a term his mother often used to describe people with considerable courage and strength.
“Heroism can take many forms,” said Casner. “Sometimes it’s just getting up every day and doing your best. My mother had more grit, integrity, and work ethic than anyone I’ve ever known. She was my hero and she showed my sister and I how to conduct our lives the way she conducted hers. She truly was a woman that had gumption.
“I’ve found that horses and people are much alike. Some have gumption and some don’t,” continued Casner, who started galloping horses when he was 15. “I’ve been around of a number of horses…there have been a good number that I’ve forgotten, but there are some that I remember. The ones that I remember all had one thing in common—they gave you everything they had. They might not be the most talented individuals, but they had gumption.
“Of all those horses that I owned or have been a part of over the years, there’s one that stands out among them all. He has more gumption than any horse I’ve ever owned, and his name is Well Armed. He was born April 4, 2003. It happened to coincide with the day of our late daughter Karri’s birthday. She would have been 24 years old that day (Karri was killed in a terrorist explosion in Bali, Indonesia in 2002). Karri and Well Armed had one thing in common—they were both extremely pigeon-toed. Karri had to wear a device for three or four years, but eventually her legs grew to be straight.”
Unfortunately, they’ve never created a device for pigeon-toed horses. Due to Well Armed’s physical imperfection and the fact Casner didn’t want to diminish the yearling averages of Tiznow, who was then a first crop sire at WinStar, Well Armed was not consigned to the sales.
“Well Armed was a big, strong, colt...he had a beautiful profile, but it was a little concerning when he walked toward you, and it was obvious it was going to be a challenge to keep him sound,” said Casner, who sent the gelding to be trained at Newmarket in England because of its uphill training track and synthetic, forgiving surface.
Well Armed made it to the races during his 2-year-old year and finally broke his maiden on his eighth try at Lingfield Racecourse in England. Following that race, his trainer at the time, Clive Brittain, sent him to Dubai, where won his first start at 3, but then injured his knee in his next outing.
Casner brought Well Armed back to Kentucky, where the gelding underwent surgery to remove a chip in his knee. The procedure was successful, but three days afterward, Casner received a call from his veterinarian that Well Armed had somehow fractured his hip in his stall and was in extreme pain.
“Another vet looked at him later and said euthanasia might be the best thing considering the extent of the injury,” said Casner. “But euthanasia was not something I wanted to consider before doing everything I could for the horse.”
Under the care of equine veterinarian Natanya Nieman, Well Armed’s knee and hip healed after several months, but he had lost all the muscle on his right hip, which cause him to walk with a sideways limp.
“It was sad because he had been such a big, strong good looking horse, and he was just a shell of himself,” said Casner. "I didn’t know if he could ever return to racing again, but I wanted to give him a chance.”
Casner shipped Well Armed to his ranch in Texas, where he underwent a rehabilitation program of hand walking and swimming.
“Swimming was just the ticket for Well Armed,” said Casner. “The great thing about swimming is its controlled exercise with low concussion, but it forces the horse to use themselves bilaterally. Over a period of time, he regained the muscle in his hip.”
Well Armed swimming during his rehabilitation program in Texas, photos by Bill Casner's iPhone:)
Casner gradually began increasing Well Armed's workload, and after nine months, the gelding was walking and jogging for two hours on a free walker every morning and swimming 35 laps in the afternoons. Riding was slowly added to Well Armed’s daily regime, and after a few weeks, he was moving well and felt like a fit racehorse once again.
“We shipped him back to Lexington, and he had regained about 98% of the muscle on the right side of his hip,” said Casner. “He had grown to be nearly 17 hands and was a handsome boy.”
Well Armed began training under Eoin Hardy, who galloped him for a month, then breezed him and decided he was fit enough to race. In his first time back after 15 months, Well Armed broke slowly, but finished a fast closing fourth in an allowance race at Oak Tree at Santa Anita in October 2007.
That was the last time Well Armed would ever break slow. He won or placed in his next seven starts, including a victory the San Antonio Handicap (gr. II) at Santa Anita Park, which earned him a ticket to go back to Dubai and compete in the 2008 World Cup. Well Armed finished a respectable third behind Curlin in the race, then capped off the year with scores in the San Diego Handicap (gr. II) and Goodwood Stakes (gr. I).
Casner’s ultimate goal for 2009 was to send Well Armed back to Dubai for the World Cup, which, of course, he won in spectacular fashion.
“The further he went, the higher my confidence rose,” Casner remembered of the race. “With three eights of a mile to go, I knew they weren’t going to catch him. When (jockey) Aaron Gryder asked the horse to run, he just re-broke and continued to run under a hand ride. For the last eighth of a mile, Aaron was just patting him on the neck. He won by an incredible 14 lengths. I never watch that race again without getting chills.
Well Armed winning the Dubai World Cup under Aaron Gryder, courtesy of Dubai Racing Club
“We’ve had some horses win some important races over the years. But I can safely say I will never experience again what I experienced that night with Well Armed," Casner continued. "That horse carried (my wife) Susan and I to the highest mountain top we will ever stand on. Well Armed, who was born on our late daughter’s birthday and carried her initials on the sleeves of our silks that night, and had overcome tremendous adversity, had just won the richest horse race in the world.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever have another horse that I love as much as Well Armed. That horse is something special, and he occupies a very big place in my heart, and he has what my dear mother referred to as gumption.”
At the end of his speech, Casner thanked all the people that had been involved in Well Armed’s incredible story.
“You don’t stand on that mountain top without the efforts of many people,” he said. “Dr. Natanya Nieman saved Well Armed’s life. Geronimo his groom loved the horse like it was his own child. Clive Brittain kept him sound and believed in him. Eoin Hardy did an excellent job of training the horse and doing what he could to keep him healthy and happy. Aaron Gryder rode the horse in each and every race and did it without fault.
“As for me, my wife of 37 years, she’s been with me on the backsides of small tracks in the Midwest to that mountaintop in Dubai. Without her love and support, I would only be another claimer.”
Well Armed has made some new friends since being retired in February and sent to Casner's ranch in Texas. Pictured below is Well Armed with one of his favorite buddies, "Samson."
"He dearly loves that little horse," said Casner.
Well Armed and Samson
Well Armed is also paddock buddies with a gelding named Bet Me Best. Campaigned by Casner in partnership, Bet Me Best was also a multiple stakes winner, scoring his big victory in the 1999 Hutcheson Stakes (gr. II).
Well Armed and Bet Me Best
Every now and then, Casner and Well Armed have a ride together, and the gelding is enjoying some Western style training.
Well Armed with his Western bridle
Well Armed and Casner are obviously BFFs
"He loves his mints and gets some each day," said Casner. "He's been a blessing in our lives."
Have you known a horse like Well Armed that has a lot of gumption? Perhaps it's your own retired Thoroughbred who is now giving you the ride of you life. I would love to hear your stories.