FLORENCE — Trainer Mark Casse has been known to carry a tiny piece of wood in his pocket, a memento given to him so that when he needs a dose of luck, he can pull it out and commence to knocking.
But as his main Kentucky Derby contender, Uncaptured, battled foot issues this winter that, while minor in nature, were enough to keep delaying his 3-year-old debut, Casse needed something more than chotchkies to keep hope alive.
What Casse has banked most heavily on in his race against time is the fact his dark bay charge already packed what some view as a career's worth of experience into his first year on the track.
"That's one of the things that has given me hope to be able to get to the Derby," Casse said Wednesday.
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Nearly 31/2 months after ending his juvenile campaign with his sixth career win, Uncaptured will resume his task of becoming a divisional force when he makes his 2013 debut against a full field of 11 others in Saturday's Grade III, $550,000 Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park.
While a bruised hoof kept Uncaptured out of sight since his gritty win in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs last Nov. 24, the fact he has seven starts and just one loss to date has lingered in the minds of many, including Turfway oddsmaker Mike Battaglia who deemed him the 3-1 morning-line favorite out of post No. 3 over Grade III winner and 7-2 second choice Balance the Books.
Not since Spend a Buck in 1985 has a horse begun its 3-year-old campaign as late as Uncaptured will and gone on to win the Kentucky Derby. All that means to Casse and owner John Oxley is that it takes an exceptional horse to overcome such a challenge and, at the risk of being bold, they believe Uncaptured is capable of such feats.
"We had some difficulties after the Kentucky Jockey Club and they took a little longer to get over than I would have liked," said Casse, who also saddled Uncaptured to victory in the Grade III Iroquois Stakes at Churchill last year. "One thing we know for sure is the horse has a lot of experience and he likes Churchill Downs.
"We're playing a little catch-up but we have those two things going for us where some others are lacking experience, and who knows if they will like Churchill. He's been training extremely well and I think he looks better than ever."
The Spiral is worth 50 points to the winner based on the new Kentucky Derby system put into place this season to determine the field for the first Saturday in May.
Uncaptured's well-seasoned juvenile campaign saw him win four times over the Polytrack at Woodbine, a fact that gave Casse even more flexibility when he had to readjust the plan for the son of Lion Heart at the start of this year.
For a horse with stamina questions in his pedigree, the 11⁄16-mile Rushaway Stakes on Saturday's undercard initially seemed a better spot for Uncaptured's return than the 11⁄8-mile Spiral.
With Keeneland's Grade I Toyota Blue Grass Stakes penciled in as Uncaptured's final Derby prep, Casse decided he would rather go for the points in the Spiral than put Uncaptured in a potential must-win situation in April
"I'm a little concerned he will get a little tired (Saturday) but I would like him to run well to where we could pick up some points where maybe then the pressure in the Blue Grass won't be as much," Casse said. "I think this can be a better indication to tell us where he's at. A lot of horses who looked like they were stars in the fall have fallen by the wayside this spring."
The failings of others have in fact contributed to some critiques of Uncaptured's ability, even more so than his fifth-place finish in the Grade III Grey Stakes last October.
Both Frac Daddy and Dewey Square, the second- and third-place finishers in the Kentucky Jockey Club, have been off the board this year, and the final time of that 11⁄16-mile race (1:44.97) was decidedly slow.
A counterpoint to some of that came last weekend when Will Take Charge, last in the Kentucky Jockey Club, won the Grade II Rebel Stakes. That result might help raise Uncaptured's stock in some eyes. Casse, however, is content to trust the intangibles he sees from the large-bodied colt.
"Some of those horses didn't perform as well but that doesn't concern me," Casse said. "I know our horse is a good horse and ... from where we were two months ago to now, I couldn't be happier. We just need some luck."