At least a dozen of the 20 horses set to start in this year’s Kentucky Derby have strong ties to Ocala and Marion County.
On Saturday, all will vie for a shot at one of horseracing’s signature events at Churchill Downs Racetrack in Louisville, Kentucky.
Among those with local ties, Soup and Sandwich may be the most connected. The 3-year-old colt was born and raised in Ocala at Live Oak Stud and his dam, Souper Scoop, is also a Live Oak product.
“He’s the hometown boy,” said Mark Casse, who trains the son of Into Mischief for Charlotte Weber, owner of Live Oak.
But Casse, also based in Ocala, adds yet another layer of local flavor.
Raised in Marion County, Casse learned the business from his father, Norman, who helped establish Marion County as an international thoroughbred center.
Last May, Mark Casse was selected to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, but he is still looking for his first Kentucky Derby win.
In 2019, Casse won both the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes with War of Will and Sir Winston, respectively. But that same year, the Kentucky Derby was tantalizingly close. War of Will was running second, set for a final push to the finish when the leader, Maximum Security, drifted into his path, causing War of Will’s jockey to pull on the reins and break the horse’s momentum.
While Maximum Security was disqualified, War of Will finished seventh, and the Derby crown went to another.
Casse said the disappointment faded not long after the race, and he is focusing on Soup and Sandwich and his other Derby entry Helium.
Both horses have only raced three times each, with most others in the field having five or six starts each.
Casse said while the horses may be light on experience, the quality of their wins is impressive.
“Helium won the Tampa Bay Derby while overcoming the most obstacles of any other horse I have ever trained before. I was extremely impressed by his performance,” he said.
He feels both horses have a chance to win in a field with no overwhelming standout.
“I am excited about both colts. There have been times when I felt a horse would have to run the race of his life (to win the Derby), but I don’t feel that way about these two. They have legitimate chances,” he said.
Despite his confidence, the oddsmakers made Soup and Sandwich a 30-1 choice and will break from the No. 19 position. Helium enters at even longer odds of 50-1 and will start from the No. 12 spot.
There is a second locally-bred horse in the Derby. Medina Spirit, who was bred by Gail Rice, opens at odds of 15-1. He will start from the No. 8 post position. The son of Protonico sold for $35,000 at the OBS July sale in 2020.
“I kept telling people, ‘This horse can run!’ Just his body and his leg, and the intelligent attitude he had, I always thought he was special,” Rice recently told the Paulickreport.com.
The colt has won more than $300,000 in his career.
The early 2-1 favorite is Essential Quality, a son of Tapit. He also boasts an Ocala connection, having gone through Niall Brennan’s program locally.
The colt is one of three Derby contenders that Brennan helped train.
“It’s exciting for the farm and all the staff because you’re part of the Triple Crown experience,” Brennan said.
The horse was bred and is owned by Godolphin, the thoroughbred operation led by Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum. While the operation has captured some of the biggest races in the world, the Kentucky Derby remains elusive.
“He drew pretty well. I think he is the horse to beat. The horse is a seasoned professional. If he gets a good trip, he’ll have a good chance,” Brennan said.
Essential Quality will start from the No. 14 position.
Another of Brennan’s graduates is Highly Motivated, also a son of Into Mischief. He is listed at odds of 10-1 and starts from the No. 17 post.
“He is a big strong horse. He carries his weight very well. Into Mischiefs are very determined horses. Honest and durable,” Brennan said.
The race could be a rematch between the Highly Motivated and Essential Quality, which dueled down the stretch in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 3. Highly Motivated led the race until Essential Quality nipped him late to win by a neck.
Brennan’s third horse is one he bought as a yearling and sold as a two-year-old. Sainthood was bred to run on turf but developed into a solid dirt horse. The son of Mshawish starts from the No. 5 hole and opens at odds of 50-1.
The year’s biggest bargain in the Derby field also got his early training in Marion County. Brooklyn Strong sold for $5,000 as a 2-year-old during the Ocala Breeders Sales 2020 April sale. The colt was consigned by Jesse Hoppel’s Coastal Equine of Anthony.
So far, his earnings stand at $225,000. He starts from the No. 3 post and is at odds of 50-1.
Back to (near) normal
The 147th Derby also marks the return to its traditional running on the first Saturday in May. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic postponed the race until September, when it ran in front of just 23,000 spectators. The race usually attracts at least 160,000 fans to Churchill Downs.
This year, the track will allow closer to 50,000 fans.
“Obviously, it’s a return to a feeling of normalcy. Having the Derby back in May gives you that sense,” said Brennan.
Post time for the Derby is 6:57 p.m. NBC starts coverage of the event, including several graded stakes races on the undercard at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday.
The Kentucky Derby is the first jewel of the Triple Crown in horseracing. The other jewels include the Preakness Stakes on May 15 at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore and the Belmont Stakes on June 5 at Belmont Park in New York.
A horse must win all three races to claim the Triple Crown. Justify was the last to accomplish the feat in 2018. The accomplishment was tarnished after a New York Times report showed the horse failed a drug test in California nearly a month before that year’s Kentucky Derby. California racing officials reportedly held off on sanctions before dropping the inquiry all together.
In 2015, American Pharoah, who received his early training at McKathan Bros. in Marion County also won the Triple Crown. Before that, however, the last horse to sweep the three races was Ocala-bred Affirmed in 1978.
2021 Kentucky Derby horses and local connections:
Essential Quality – Niall Brennan Stable
Like the King – The Acorn Farm. Sold as a yearling at the OBS October 2019 sale for $170,000.
Known Agenda – Eddie Woods Stables
Rock Your World – Mayberry Farm
Bourbonic – Lynnwood Stable
Medina Spirit – Bred by Gail Rice. Sold as a 2-year-old at the OBS July 2020 sale for $35,000.
Highly Motivated – Niall Brennan Stable
Helium – Mark Casse trained
Soup and Sandwich – Bred by Live Oak Stud. Mark Casse trained
Sainthood – Niall Brennan Stable
Keepmeinmind – Paul Sharp Training Center
Brooklyn Strong – Coastal Equine. Sold as a 2-year-old at OBS April sales for $5,000.