TORONTO - Trainer Mark Casse likes his chances Sunday in the $500,000 Woodbine Oaks thoroughbred race.
And with good reason.
Casse will have three horses in the nine-horse field, including Dixie Strike, the 6-5 early favourite, and Northern Passion, the 5-2 second pick. The third is Black Bird Rock, a 12-1 longshot who is by Flower Alley, the sire of I'll Have Another, the Canadian-owned horse that can claim the American Triple Crown with a victory June 9 at Belmont Park.
"It's a good position to be in,'' Casse said following the Oaks' draw Thursday at Woodbine Racetrack. "Am I confident? Yes. Am I over-confident? Definitely not.
"Hey, I'm a realist and know anything is possible. I've been doing this over 30 years so you become a little hard to it. Will I be nervous? A little bit, maybe. But we're happy to be there.''
Dixie Strike will break from the No. 6 post and chase Canadian racing history in the 1 1/8-mile filly classic at Woodbine. She is the half-sister to Inglorious, last year's Oaks and Queen's Plate champion, and never before have two half-sisters won the Woodbine Oaks, the first leg in the filly Triple Tiara.
Dixie Strike is also the 4-1 Winterbook favourite for the Queen's Plate, which will be run June 24 at Woodbine. Last year, Inglorious became just the fifth filly to win both the Oaks and Plate.
"If you look at it, it's quite remarkable," Casse said. "I don't know what the odds would be (of two half-sisters winning Oaks) but they would be phenomenal.
"But Dixie Strike has already done enough, she has stamped herself as a potential star not just on the track but later on as a broodmare and I'm sure Mr. Oxley (owner John Oxley) will give her every opportunity to be a great broodmare.''
Jockey Emma-Jayne Wilson, who will be aboard 20-1 outsider Awesome Fire on Sunday, will also chase Canadian racing history. Wilson is the only female rider to win the Queen's Plate (aboard Mike Fox in 2007) and is looking to become the first woman to ride an Oaks champion.
Dixie Strike has finished in the money in seven-of-eight career starts (four wins, two seconds, one third) and is the field's leading moneywinner with over $490,000. Patrick Husbands, Canada's top jockey a record seven times, has ridden Dixie Strike five times (three wins, two seconds) and will be aboard again Sunday and like Casse be chasing a third career Oaks win.
Husbands and Casse won in 2006 with Kimchi before capturing the '07 event with Sealy Hill. That year, Sealy Hill became the only horse to win the Triple Tiara, which also includes the $250,000 Bison City Stakes on July 1 and $250,000 Wonder Where Stakes on July 29.
The field, with post position, horse, trainer, jockey and odds for Sunday's race include: 1) Waitinginthewings, Ashlee Brnjas, Jesse Campbell, 20-1; 2) Bantee, Reade Baker, Gerry Olguin, 20-1; 3) Awesome Fire, Nick Gonzalez, Emma-Jayne Wilson, 20-1; 4)Northern Passion, Mark Casse, Luis Contreras, 5-2; 5) Black Bird Rock, Mark Casse, Eurico Rosa da Silva, 12-1; 6) Dixie Strike, Mark Casse, Patrick Husbands, 6-5; 7) Rose and Shine, Ralph Biamonte, Omar Moreno, 8-1; 8) Irish Mission, Mark Frostad, Alex Solis, 6-1; 9) Horseshoe Hill, Mike Doyle, Justin Stein, 20-1.
Sunday's card also includes the $150,000 Plate Trial Stakes. The 11-horse field includes Beeker Street, the Queenston Stakes winner who will start from the No. 6 post with Husbands aboard.
Contreras guided Inglorious to victory in the Oaks and Queen's Plate last year en route to becoming the first jockey ever to capture the Canadian Triple Crown aboard two mounts. After winning the Plate, Contreras guided Pender Harbour to the winner's circle in both the Prince of Wales and Breeders' Stakes.
Northern Passion has three wins and a second-place finish from seven career starts and Casse wouldn't be surprised if she turned the tables on her highly regarded stablemate Sunday.
''She's not that far behind Dixie Strike," he said. "Northern Passion has trained very well the past few weeks and she is push-button.
"She will go when Luis asks her go to and going 1 1/8 miles that's very important.''
Black Bird Rock is lightly raced — she didn't run as a two-year-old and has a win in two career starts, all this year. But she is the daughter of Flower Alley, the 2005 Grade 1 Travis Stakes winner who was second to Saint Liam in the '05 Breeders' Cup Classic before retiring to stud with over $2.5 million in the bank.
"With Black Bird, we still don't know how good she is," Casse said. "She trains like she's a very good horse and has the same sire as I'll have Another, the Kentucky Derby winner, who was a very good horse.
"She wouldn't shock me, she's right there with the girls. She's got a little less seasoning but she has a lot of ability.''
And, Casse said, a love for speed that could see Black Bird Rock on the lead Sunday.
"If she has clear sailing, I don't know that Eurico will be able to keep her off the lead," Casse said.