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Sir Winston trainer Mark Casse holds up the August Belmont Trophy after Sir Winston won the 151st running of the Belmont Stakes, in Elmont, N.Y., on June 8, 2019.Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/The Associated Press

It’s still early in the process, but trainer Mark Casse once again has some solid Kentucky Derby prospects in his stable.

Casse, a 14-time winner of the Sovereign Award as Canada’s top trainer, believes three of his horses – including Ontario-bred God of Love – have legitimate chances to qualify for the US$3-million Derby. The 1 1/4-mile test, slated for May 7 at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., is the opening jewel of the American Triple Crown.

“We’ll see how he (God of Love) handles dirt,” Casse said during a telephone interview. “He trained on dirt before coming to Woodbine so I have a fairly good idea that he likes dirt as well.”

God of Love ran four times at Woodbine in 2020 as a two-year-old, registering two wins. He emerged victorious in his final event of the year, capturing the Grade 3, 1 1/16-mile Grey Stakes on Nov. 28.

The Kentucky Derby is regarded as one of thoroughbred racing’s most prestigious events and it’s one of the few titles that’s eluded Casse. The 60-year-old native of Indianapolis has captured the other two jewels of the U.S. Triple Crown (Preakness, Belmont), all three legs of Canada’s Triple Crown (Queen’s Plate, Prince of Wales, Breeders’) and five Breeders’ Cup events in addition to being a member of both the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame and National Museum and Hall of Fame south of the border.

Even if God of Love qualifies for the Derby, there’s still a chance the horse could also take a run at the $1-million Queen’s Plate, the opening event of the OLG Canadian Triple Crown. The Plate is scheduled for Aug. 21 at Woodbine.

“The Queen’s Plate is very important to us,” Casse said. “We could make the Kentucky Derby and still have plenty of time for the Queen’s Plate.”

Casse’s other top Derby contenders include Pappacap and Golden Glider, both American-bred three-year-old colts. Pappacap, the current points leader on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, is coming off second-place finishes last year in the American Pharoah and Breeders’ Cup juvenile, both Grade 1 races.

Not surprisingly, that’s earned Pappacap a spot on many pre-Derby projected top-12 lists, including some at No. 1.

Golden Glider won his maiden race Nov. 27 at Woodbine before topping the field in an allowance event recently at Tampa Bay Downs.

All three prospects will be running soon.

Pappacap is slated to race Jan. 22 in the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds in New Orleans, while God of Love is being pointed toward the Grade 3 Withers Stakes on Feb. 5 at Aqueduct Racetrack in New York. Golden Glider is scheduled to make his next start Feb. 12 in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs.

All three races are part of the ‘22 Road to the Kentucky Derby, a series of races through which horses qualify for the Derby.

Casse said Golden Glider showed him something during his win at Woodbine.

“I thought his win at Woodbine was extremely impressive,” Casse said. “He kind of walked out of the gate and you don’t see a lot of horses come from last to win their first time out.

“An average horse can win when things go his way but I think it takes a good horse to win when things don’t go his way and (he’s done that) twice now, he was even a little slow out of the gate again the other day. He just hasn’t figured it out, he’s a slow learner, but what’s impressive is when you’re able to win when nothing goes your way. Those are things that set off little alarms that say, ‘Hey, this could be a good horse.”’

Casse will also have an interest in the Grade 1 Pegasus World Cup Invitational on Jan. 29 at Gulfstream Park at Hallandale, Fla. His horse Sir Winston, the ‘19 Belmont Stakes winner, will be in the US$3-million 1 1/8-mile dirt race at early 30-1 odds with veteran Woodbine jockey Patrick Husbands aboard.

Another Casse horse, Woodbine regular March to the Arch, will run in the $1-million Grade 1 Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational over 1 1/8 miles.

“They’re both long shots,” Casse said. “But if you’re afraid to step off first, then you can’t steal second.

“I live by that.”