By Dave Briggs for Woodbine.com
TORONTO, April 30, 2021 – Nearly 60 years ago, Canadian-bred Northern Dancer put the nation on the world Thoroughbred map with a dominant victory in the 1964 Kentucky Derby en route to becoming one of the most successful sires in the sport’s history.
Saturday’s 147th edition of the Run for the Roses won’t feature a Canadian-bred or Canadian-owned runner, but there will be some other Canadian content for those north of the border wishing to root for the home team.
Perhaps the most notable is Robertino Diodoro. The Alberta-born trainer will saddle his first Derby starter on May 1 when Keepmeinmind goes into the starting gate at Churchill Downs with jockey David Cohen. Keepmeinmind won the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (Grade 2) at Churchill Downs as rookie and comes into the Derby off a fifth-place finish on April 3 in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (Grade 2) at Keeneland.
Mark Casse — who has been voted Canada’s Outstanding Trainer 13 times, including in each of the last 10 years — will send out two Derby hopefuls in search of his first victory in the race in his ninth appearance in it. The Canadian and U.S. Hall of Famer will saddle both Soup and Sandwich (Tyler Gaffalione) and unbeaten Helium (Julien Leparoux), who won the Display Stakes at Woodbine Racetrack in October of 2020 in the second of this three career starts.
Windsor native Dina McKnight-Dargis is a part-owner of Hot Rod Charlie, who drew post nine for Saturday’s race. Derby favourite Essential Quality (2-1) beat Hot Rod Charlie by less than a length at last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
Finally, Derby starter Highly Motivated has ties to Canada through his dam, Strong Incentive, who is an Ontario-bred mare and winner of the 2015 Jammed Lovely Stakes at Woodbine. Strong Incentive, sired by Warrior’s Road, earned $123,568 on the track. Highly Motivated is trained by Chad Brown and will be ridden by Javier Castellano for Klaravich Stables, who co-owns with William Lawrence.
Apart from Northern Dancer, there have been other Canadian-connected Derby winners. But, proving just how difficult a race it is to win, it would be 19 years after the Oshawa, ON-born legend won the 1964 race before a second Canadian-bred would follow suit. In 1983, Sunny’s Halo — bred and owned by D.J. (Pud) Foster of Toronto and trained by David C. Cross Jr. — won the Kentucky Derby and became the first 3-year-old Thoroughbred in North America to earn more than $1 million in a single season.
The two champions remain the only Canadian-breds to win the Derby, but Canadians have found success in the race in other ways.
In 2009, Mine That Bird won the 135th running of the Derby. Mine That Bird was bred by Peter Lamantia of Toronto and U.S. partners and originally purchased as a yearling by Woodbine trainer Dave Cotey for $9,500 (U.S.) before being sold to U.S. interests for $400,000 at the end of his 2-year-old season.
Four years later, owner J. Paul Reddam of Windsor, ON won the first of two Kentucky Derbies when I’ll Have Another ran down Bodemeister in the final furlong of the 2012 contest. I’ll Have Another was purchased for $11,000 as a yearling. Reddam would score his second Derby win in 2016 with Nyquist. Both I’ll Have Another and Nyquist were trained by Doug O’Neill and ridden by Mario Gutierrez.
In 2018, Justify, bred by John Gunther of Vancouver, won the Derby for U.S. owners en route to becoming only the sport’s 13th Triple Crown winner. The Bob Baffert trainee was ridden to glory by Mike Smith.