For weeks leading up to Saturday's Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs has been throbbing with excitement and anticipation. At 7 a.m., the dirt track vibrates under horses' hooves as they work out. The trademark twin spires, somewhat hidden by a renovation of the clubhouse, still loom high. Louisville, Ky., is one place where the race horse is still king, says Mark Casse, trainer of one of Canada's two connections to Saturday's classic thoroughbred race.
"I'm standing on the track. To my left, horses are galloping and training. To my right are swarms of people who love horse racing. There's nothing like it," he says, immersing himself in a place where the horse industry has always mattered. Saturday is the 138th Kentucky Derby.
"A few days ago, I was standing here and Prospective [a U.S.-bred horse with Canadian affiliations]went by. Hundreds of cameras snapped pictures. I was standing next to my son [Norman, 28]and asked 'are we dreaming?' He said 'I think so.'"
The dream is different from the nightmare that the horse racing scene has become in Ontario, he says, as the provincial government intends to slash the slots-at-tracks program that has been underpinning the race industry. The rural-based roots of horse racing will wither, jobs will go away, broodmares and foals become liabilities rather than sources of income, sources of dreams, he said.
"For years I bragged about how great things were in Ontario, what a successful program it was," said Casse, who was born in Indianapolis but came to Canada 20 years ago and based his training operations out of Toronto's Woodbine race track. He tells people he was "foaled, not born" and that horse blood runs in his veins. His father was a trainer and breeder for 40 years. At 12, Mark rode with his dad in a horse van to see Secretariat win the 1973 Kentucky Derby. He got his trainer's licence at 18, saddled his first winner in 1979 and won three Sovereign Awards as Canada's top trainer from 2006 to 2008.
"My owner [Tulsa, Okla., oilman John C. Oxley]has about $1.5-million in Canadian-bred horses we bought. We won't be buying any now. That was money that went to Canadians. But now the horses are a liability," he said.
"I can see my [training]operation dropping to 25 per cent of what it is," said Casse, who has employed as many as 45 people. "We've already made plans to move horses out and we'll start racing in New York [State] And normally, we have 10 horses at Churchill Downs. Right now, we've got 35 ..."
He said owners will stop buying Canadian bred horses. "We'll have our cheaper horses in Canada, and it will go from an A-meet to a C-meet. You lose the quality of the horse, lose the quality of the customers, then lose it all."
Though he's American, "everyone looks at me as being the Canadian from Woodbine," Casse said.
Casse would like to bring the Derby roses north of the border. Owner Oxley – a polo player who rode horses to school – has a previous Kentucky Derby win in Monarchos (2001) and has had other top horses in 1999 Breeders' Cup Distaff winner Beautiful Pleasure, 1995 Kentucky Oaks winner Gal in a Ruckus, and several graded stakes winners.
The jockey aboard Prospective is Mexican Luis Contreras, but there's a distinct Woodbine flavour to the pairing, with Contreras the leading Woodbine rider in 2011, with more than $11-million in purses. He's a Kentucky Derby rookie.
The other Canadian connection in the race is I'll Have Another, owned by Windsor, Ont., Paul Reddam, president of the financial lending company CashCall.
The chestnut horse was purchased for only $35,000 as a two-year-old but came on to win both the Robert Lewis Stakes and the Santa Anita Derby. I'll Have Another has speed on his mother's side – dam Arch's Gal Edith won her only start over six furlongs – and has a good pedigree on his father's side, sired by Travers and Jim Dandy Stakes winner Flower Alley. Flower Alley is a veteran of the 2005 Kentucky Derby.
I'll Have Another is trained by Doug O'Neill and ridden by Mexican Mario Guiterrez, the leading rider at Vancouver's Hastings race course before moving to California for the winter.
Thunderstorms are predicted for race day. Both Canada-connected horses will need exceptional days to challenge early favourites. Bodemeister (4 to 1) trained by Bob Baffert, starts from post-position six, Union Rags (9 to 2) from the four-hole and Gemologist (6 to 1) from spot 15.
I'll Have Another, listed at 12 to 1, comes out of the auxiliary gate in faraway hole 19, while Prospective comes out of the 12th post position, but is rated a long shot at 30 to 1.
"Prospective's early training and racing came at Woodbine. He broke his maiden at Woodbine. He won the Grey Stakes there, which is the biggest graded stakes race for 2-year-olds in Canada – and, had he not won that race, he would not have had the earnings to get into the Derby," Casse said.
He describes Prospective – who was named as a $250,000 yearling as a Prospective Derby horse – as "a man. He's tough. Nothing bothers him. He's a professional and it gives him an advantage over the others. He's been here 45 days and loves it. I won't tell you he's the most talented horse in the race – I don't believe he is – but in the right circumstances he can be right there."