Mark Casse has stroked a lot off his bucket list the last two years.
In 2014, the veteran thoroughbred trainer captured his first Queen's Plate with filly Lexie Lou and last year tasted his first Breeders' Cup success with two victories before capping the season celebrating a first Eclipse Award with filly Tepin, the Breeders' Cup Mile champion. But winning the Kentucky Derby — the iconic first leg of American racing's Triple Crown — has long topped Casse's wish list.
Casse, 54, a seven-time Sovereign award winner as Canada's top trainer, believes he has a solid stable of Derby prospects. That includes Conquest Big E, who makes his three-year-old debut Saturday in the Grade II $350,000 Holy Bull Stakes, a 1 1/16-mile dirt race at Florida's Gulfstream Park.
Casse is fulfilling his childhood dream and sons Norman — an assistant trainer with Casse Racing — and Colby are poised to follow in their father's footsteps. Casse can see the day when he lets his sons take over, but just not right now.
"Before that happens I would like to win the Kentucky Derby," Casse said via telephone Tuesday from Ocala, Fla.
Winning the Derby at Churchill Downs would also move Casse, 10 times the leading trainer at Woodbine, a huge step towards achieving another life-long dream — induction into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.
"When I was about 10 years old I was at Saratoga and I walked through the Hall of Fame and said to either my mom or dad that someday I'm going to be in here," Casse said. "I thought the Hall of Fame would be tough to get to but I think maybe winning the Breeders' Cup races helped.
"I don't think we were in the conversation before that."
The Kentucky Derby goes May 7. Casse has sent three horses to the race, his best effort being fifth last year with Danzig Moon. But Danzig Moon had to be euthanized the following month after breaking down in the $150,000 Plate Trial at Woodbine.
Topping the Holy Bull Stakes field Saturday will be Mohaymen, Shadwell Stable's unbeaten multiple graded-stakes winner who was victorious over 1 1/8 miles the last time out.
"Hopefully we find some answers this weekend," Casse said. "I want to see that he (Conquest Big E) can handle the distance.
"These are the guys we're going to have to deal with down the road in the Derby. I'd rather find out now than find out later. Those are the questions."
Conquest Big E has two wins from four career starts. After finishing eighth in the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile on Oct. 31, the American-bred son of Grade 1 winner Tapit won over a mile his last start Nov. 28.
Still, Casse believes conquest Big E is somewhat of an underachiever.
"This horse trains like a very good horse but so far I think he has just been a good horse," Casse said. "But if you're going to win the Derby . . . you've got to be a very good horse and I just want to see him step it up a little bit.
"He's had some issues with greenness and experience. Those should be out of his way, he really shouldn't have any excuses. He needs to come in with a big performance."
Getting that performance out of Conquest Big E will be the job of veteran jockey Mike Smith, a multiple Breeders' Cup champion who has also won all three legs of the American Triple Crown.
"Mike is one of the greatest riders of all time in the world," Casse said. "I want to see what Mike has to say as well.
"Mike will give us an idea of how good he is."
Another Derby prospect is Airoforce, whose only loss in four career starts was by a neck to Hit It a Bomb in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf. Casse said Airoforce will run in the Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs next month.
"He's a very nice horse," Casse said.
Casse's stable also includes Conquest Windycity, who won over 1 1/16 miles in his final two-year-old start, and Bar None, a three-year-old winner over six furlongs Jan. 2 at Gulfstream Park, his only start so far.
"We have some other horses that have to step up their game," Casse said. "This is an important couple of months now.
"You've got to keep stepping up."
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press