By Gene Kershner for woodbine.com
LOUISVILLE, MAY 2 – For nearly 40 years, Mark Casse has been in search of racing’s Holy Grail.
With two talented colts in his holster, including the probable favorite, he’ll be coming out guns blazing on the First Saturday in May in attempts to finish the quest. The nine-time Sovereign award winning trainer has high hopes of winning Kentucky Derby 143 by sending out the 2-year-old champion, Classic Empire and the Ontario-bred, State of Honor.
The Derby stands as the one race the conditioner covets the most after claiming his first Queen’s Plate with the filly Lexie Lou in 2014, on his 20th attempt to win Canada’s most famous race.
Prior to that monumental Plate win with the filly, he confided that there is just one other race on his radar."There’s only one other race that I’d rather win, Kentucky on the First Saturday in May,” the long-time trainer told me at the 2013 Plate breakfast.
Mark Casse and son, Norm, at Churchill Downs… (Penelope Miller)
Saturday will be his fourth and fifth attempts at wearing the roses. His best finish to date was with the late Danzig Moon who finished fifth in the 2015 Run for the Roses.
His son and assistant trainer Norman summed it up in one brief sentence after catching up with him from home base in Louisville to talk all things Derby. “It’s pretty simple; he’s spent his whole life trying to win this thing.”
Having the chance to run a Canadian-bred horse in the Derby is rare and winning it with one would be extraordinary. Only two Canadian-bred horses have won the Derby — Northern Dancer in 1964 who went on to become the dominant progenitor of his breed; and the supremely talented multiple Grade I winner, Sunny’s Halo, who in 1983 drew off from Desert Wine to take the roses.
State of Honor comes into the Derby off a solid second-place finish in the Florida Derby behind the highly-regarded Always Dreaming. Jose Lezcano will ride the Conrad Farms colt for the first time in the Derby. His other major prep was in the Tampa Bay Derby, where he also finished second to another Pletcher colt, Tapwrit. Those two races provided the points necessary to catapult the son of To Honor and Serve into the Derby starting gate.
State of Honor galloping at Churchill Downs… (Coady Photography)
Norman favored State of Honor’s effort at Gulfstream over the race in Tampa. “I don’t think he really liked Tampa that much,” said Casse. “We ran him over there because it was a logical spot and we’ve had a fair amount of success there. If you want a really true indicator the type of horse State of Honor on the main track, you want to look at the Florida Derby. The Florida Derby was a really, really good race.”
In addition to the fact that the 17-hand State of Honor has adjusted well to the tight Churchill track in three serious works since he arrived in Louisville, his biggest strength is his determination.
“He has a really high cruising speed,” said Casse. “The horse has a big, big heart. He tries every time. In an inconsistent year, he’s been the most consistent horse. That’s because he’s a horse that lays it on the line for you every time he goes out to race. I truthfully don’t think he was ready for those races, he needed those races. Now you’ll get to see the real State of Honor.”
As a lack of pace could materialize in the mile-and-a-quarter Derby, the best scenario for Team Casse could be a merry-go-round around the Churchill oval with State of Honor leading the way. “For him to win the Kentucky Derby, he’ll need to get away from the gate well, have a great position to get into the first turn, the pace will be moderate it won’t be hot, he’ll open up on the far turn and play catch me if you can,” described the young Casse.
He’ll be the one horse that all of Canada will be rooting for. If things don’t end up according to the script, there’s always the Queen’s Plate or Prince of Wales in July to fall back on. “Obviously we love to represent Canada. We love to represent Woodbine. If we win the Kentucky Derby, we’re going to be over the moon.”
State of Honor on graduation day at Woodbine…(Michael Burns Photo)
The second Casse charge, Classic Empire, is just the opposite of State of Honor, as he is on everyone’s radar as the presumed morning line favorite. Julien Leparoux will ride the Eclipse winning colt for owners who are familiar with the special Churchill Downs infield winner’s circle.
Classic Empire’s owner John C. Oxley won the 2001 Derby with Monarchos and has revived his racing operation after hooking up with the Casse barn up in Canada several years ago.
“We’ve come from Mark’s leadership in Canada down to the (United) States. I did pretty well up there for a while, and now we’re rallying back into the game. It’s awesome. I’m a stayer. When Assault won the ’46 Derby, I was a few years old listening to it on my little radio. The Derby captured me then, and it has every year since,” said Oxley.
The post-position draw, scheduled for Wednesday, will determine his spot in the gate and his odds are likely to be slotted in the 4-to-1 to 5-to- 1 range.
What comes with the favorite’s role is typically enormous pressure on a barn that’s saddled many a big race favorite. Team Casse appears both cool and confident heading into the biggest race in the barn’s history.
“There’s certainly pressure. However, we live under the moniker that pressure is a privilege. It’s a privilege to be in this position. We really feel confident, I’m not nervous, we’re ready for it. After today’s final work, I’m very confident that things are going in the right direction,” said the assistant trainer.
The younger Casse has developed and conditioned several of the stable’s superstars over the past few years, notably two-time Eclipse winning mare Tepin, and is quickly making a big name for himself nationally. His reputation stands for itself and he no longer stands in his father’s shadow.
The son of Pioneerof the Nile has been a difficult horse to train, refusing to take to the track at times, and has been nicknamed “bad boy” by the barn staff. He never left the gate last summer in Saratoga as the odds-on favorite in the Hopeful on Labor Day. With all of his quirkiness, Norman has done a fabulous job getting him ready to run in the biggest race of his career despite many obstacles, including a foot abscess discovered after the Holy Bull.
“He’s been kind of a head-scratcher,” said Casse. “He’s a little bit of a bad boy on the race track. He has to have a special rider get on him that deals with those types of horses. We didn’t want to take the chance of letting another person work the horse.”
Classic Empire schooling under Norm’s watchful eye… (Penelope Miller)
Casse isn’t concerned with the 160,000-plus screaming fans expected on Derby day, citing some of his previous stellar efforts in front of big crowds. “As difficult as he can be to train in the morning, and yes, he did have that one hiccup at Saratoga. This horse has run at Keeneland in the Breeders’ Futurity, he’s run in the Breeders’ Cup and in Arkansas. All those were huge crowds and he didn’t turn a hair,” said Casse.
Where his concern does lie is in Wednesday’s post draw. “The only thing left I’m worried about now, is post position. I don’t think I necessarily want be in the 20 hole, or in the one hole with this horse. He’s training so well, he’s kind of eliminated all of the other fears,” he said.
He only has two races during his sophomore season, due to the foot abscess that caused him to miss a prep race. His win in the Arkansas Derby three weeks ago, solidified his spot in the Derby and announced to the world that his 2-year-old form was still intact.
In addition to the foundation and fitness he obtained from the race at Oaklawn, he also received a good educational experience with the trip he had. Casse feels that “he is sitting on a career best race here.”
While Norman confessed that he thinks about winning the Derby for a split-second every day, he realizes what it means to his father.
“When you grow up doing this, there’s really one goal that every horseman has, whether or not they’ll want admit it or not, and it’s to win the Derby. It would be the crowning achievement of his remarkable career.”
Gene Kershner is the turf writer for The Buffalo News, a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association and tweets @EquiSpace.