A win at the 2018 Kentucky Derby would fulfill a decades-long dream for Mark Casse and cement his reputation as one of Canada’s top thoroughbred trainers.
Casse is continuing his long-time pursuit of an elusive Derby victory with Ontario-bred colt Flameaway. The horse could solidify its quest to run at Churchill Downs on Saturday with a solid performance in the US$1-million Bluegrass Stakes, a Grade 2 1 1/8-mile dirt race at Keeneland.
Casse, a 57-year-old Indiana native, has left an indelible mark on Canadian racing. Nine times he’s been named Canada’s top trainer and has won all three legs of the country’s Triple Crown. Two years ago, he was inducted into the Canadian Racing Hall of Fame.
One of the few accomplishments missing is a Kentucky Derby victory, so Casse understands fully the significance of winning the crown jewel of the American racing for the first time with a Canadian-bred horse.
“It would be everything,” Casse said during a conference call. “It would be my career all tied up in one.
“I owe so much of our success to Toronto, to Woodbine, to Canada. To be able to do it with a Canadian-bred would be the ultimate satisfaction.”
Casse grew up around horses as his late father, Norman Sr., was a key figure in the Florida breeding and sales industries. Mark Casse vividly remembers as an eight-year-old boldly stating on a TV show that one day he’d win the Kentucky Derby.
“I think the Kentucky Derby drives everything,” Casse said. “I know it’s driven me for 48, 49 years.
“The Breeders’ Cup now is also a big deal but there’s still only one Kentucky Derby. You talk to somebody who’s hardly ever heard anything about racing and I can promise you one thing: They will have heard of the Kentucky Derby.”
Casse has options with Flameaway, which include running him in the $1-million Queen’s Plate — the first leg of Canada’s Triple Crown — in June at Toronto’s Woodbine Racetrack.
“The good news is as the races lie, we’re able to do both,” he said. “Right now we’re just going to concentrate on the Bluegrass, then hopefully the Kentucky Derby and then there will be some decisions to be made.”
Flameaway could dramatically strengthen his Derby bid Saturday. A $400,000 yearling purchase by owner John C. Oxley, Flameaway is currently ranked 18th in the points race with 30. Audible and Noble Indy both lead with 110 points but Quip, Magnum Moon and Runaway Ghost are all tied for eighth, just 20 points ahead of Flameaway.
The Bluegrass winner will receive 100 Derby points. Second-place is worth 40 points with 20 for third and 10 for fourth.
Last year, a full 20-horse field went postward, with Always Dreaming emerging victorious. Casse had two horses in the race as Classic Empire (4-1 early favourite) was fourth while Canadian-bred State of Honor finished 19th.
Only two Canadian-bred horses have ever won the Derby, the last being Sunny’s Halo in 1983. The first was the incomparable Northern Dancer in 1964.
Mine That Bird, Canada’s top two-year-old male in 2008, was a shocking 50-1 longshot Derby winner in ’09. But he was bred in the U.S. and had been sold to foreign interests prior to his stunning win.
Casse is bullish on the versatile Flameaway, a horse that’s won on grass, dirt and synthetic tracks. The three-year-old, who’ll be ridden by veteran jockey Jose Lezcano, has five wins and a second-place finish in eight career starts.
Flameaway heads into the Bluegrass Stakes with two victories and a runner-up finish in three races this year.
“Don’t sell him short, he’s a pretty good horse,” Casse said. “I’ve seen him grow so much from two to three.
“He’s matured, he’s got a great attitude.”
But Flameaway (6-1) faces a challenge Saturday as he’ll start from the No. 12 post in the 14-horse race. That’s not ideal with a field that includes favourite Good Magic (2-1, post 11), Free Drop Billy (5-1, post 10) and Quip (6-1, post five).
Flameaway was second to Quip in his last start, the Grade 2 US$355,000 Tampa Bay Derby, a 1 1/16-mile dirt race March 10.
“It’s not perfect,” Casse said of the No. 12 post position. “It could’ve been worse, it could’ve been better.
“We’re just going to have to handle it from there.”
What’s encouraging to Casse is regardless of what’s asked of Flameaway, the horse has usually delivered.
“We’ve thrown synthetic at him, turf, we’ve thrown slop, dirt, a little bit of everything,” Casse said. “More times than naught he wins.
“He’s a very versatile horse and game. He’s just a pleasure, really . . . every time you throw something at him he handles it and asks for more.”