Casse bullish on Canadian-bred State of Honor’s chances in Kentucky Derby

Casse bullish on Canadian-bred State of Honor

State of Honor has always stood out in a crowd.

That’s because the strapping bay stands 17 hands one inch high, or roughly 175 centimetres (five feet nine inches). He’ll definitely be hard to miss Saturday in the Kentucky Derby, the first jewel of American racing’s Triple Crown.

“He’s a big, beautiful horse,” said trainer Mark Casse. “When you figure (early 4-1 Derby favourite) Classic Empire is (16 hands, one inch or 165 centimetres), State of Honor is a very big horse.

“He’s also got a big, big heart. He tries every time.”

Jockey Jose Lezcano will ride State of Honor for the first time Saturday. The Ontario-bred and owned horse will combine with stablemate Classic Empire to give the 56-year-old Casse, an Indianapolis native, two shots in the 20-horse field at achieving his lifetime goal of winning the Derby.

Casse’s best Derby finish was fifth in ’15 with the late Danzig Moon.

“It’s the most important race, ever, in the world for me,” said Casse, Canada’s top trainer a record nine times. “When I was eight years old, I did a TV show and said I was going to win the Kentucky Derby and I’d love to check it off.

“I would’ve loved to try checking it off when my dad was still alive. It’s been a tough week, many tears have been shed and so many stories told. The Kentucky Derby and Churchill Downs were very dear to my father.”

Casse’s father, Norman Sr., — a key figure in the Florida breeding and sales industries — died March 6 at age 79.

Classic Empire has garnered much attention in Kentucky after winning the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby on April 15. He drew the No. 14 post Wednesday.

State of Honor, with just one win in 10 career starts, comes in well under the radar at early 30-1 odds and will break from the No. 6 post. But Casse remains bullish on the horse.

“He has a legitimate chance, make no mistake about it,” Casse said. “In any 20-horse field, he just needs a clean break.

“It’s been much discussed that there’s not much speed in the race and he’s going to be close to the lead or maybe even be on it. So much of winning the Kentucky Derby and being ready is having the horse peaking at the right time and he’s doing that. In fact, he’s kind of been the talk around the track on how good he’s training and how good he looks.”

While Casse chases a first-ever Derby win Saturday, State of Honor looks to join very exclusive company. Only two Canadian-breds have won the prestigious race — the legendary Northern Dancer in 1964 and Sunny’s Halo in ’83.

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.

State of Honor began racing last season at Woodbine, needing five races to register his first win. Since then, he’s finished second four times, including in the Florida Derby on April 1, his last start, and the Tampa Bay Derby in March.

Points from those two races helped State of Honor cement a Derby berth, delighting Penny Conrad, who co-owns the horse with her husband, Manfred.

“After every race Penny would ask, ‘Do we have enough points,’ ” Casse said. “And I’d say, ‘We’re getting closer, Penny.’

“Then after the Florida Derby she asked, ‘Do we have enough points?’ I said, ‘We do,’ and she just started crying. I told her I wanted them to come out this week and see the festivities because it’s like nothing they’ve ever seen before.”

Coincidentally, much of State of Honor’s success has come since Casse moved the horse from Tapeta to dirt.

“Obviously he went to Toronto because the Conrads love to watch their horses run and he’s Canadian-bred,” Casse said. “He trained and ran well but not great.

“Last November, we sent him to Palm Meadows Training Centre (in Boynton, Fla.) and as soon as he got on dirt he was like a different horse. It happens, some horses like grass, some horses like dirt, some horses like synthetic.”

On Saturday, horses must not only contend with a large crowd — last year’s announced attendance of 167,227 was the second-most ever — there’s also Churchill Downs’ lengthy opening stretch from the starting gate to the first turn.

“Most horses have gone into a turn within about an eighth of a mile, which naturally slows you down,” Casse said. “In the Kentucky Derby, you’re going to have 5/16s of a mile, almost, of straightaway and when some horses see that there’s no slowing them down.

“The good news is one of Jose’s fortes is getting a horse to quiet down. But you just never know because there’s nothing to judge how a horse will perform in this type of race because they’ve never seen anything like it.”

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press

Just Posted

Saanich man arrested in cross-border drug smuggling operation

William Milton Barnes of Greater Victoria faces multiple charges following six-month investigation

Greater Victoria’s living wage would afford you one latte per year

Cost of living increases drive region’s living wage up 49 cents to $20.50 an hour

Vancouver Island is home to some of the ‘rattiest’ cities in B.C.

Three municipalities in Greater Victoria, and three more around the Island have gnawed their way into the top 20

Spill at Victoria airport prompts emergency response

North Saanich Fire and ambulance respond to spill of unknown substance

North Saanich targets recreational pot on ALR land

District adds voice to municipalities calling for production to stay off ALR land

VIDEO: B.C. man recognized for spinning basketball on toothbrush

Abbotsford man holds world record for longest duration of time of 60.5 seconds

Cat found stuffed in box in Dumpster in northeastern B.C.

Still alive, cat was found near Dawson Creek restrained with zip ties, legs forced behind neck

Fears prompt feds to establish BBQ brush safety standards

Wire-bristle safety fears prompt Ottawa to establish BBQ brush safety standards

Don’t forget about women left to sweep up shards of glass ceiling, W7 urges G7

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau champions gender equality at the G7 he is being asked to raise the concerns of marginalized women

Canadian air travel industry fears pilot flight-time limits will go too far

Air carriers urge feds to slow down flight-time limits for sleepy pilots

Sky-high farmland prices ‘ruinous’ for B.C. agriculture: UFV ag professor

Fraser Valley-based Tom Baumann says $80K-per-acre in area threatens food security

Sights of Saanich bring smiles to Japanese delegation

A small leap highlighted the short but potentially historic visit of a… Continue reading

Political heavyweights hit Washington in hunt for NAFTA deal

Officials from Prime Minister’s office, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland part of talks

Greenbelt Microgreens recall in B.C., Alberta, due to Listeria concerns

Canadian Food Inspection Agency says there have been no illnesses linked to the microgreens

Most Read