Mark Casse is both a hard-core devotee to pursuing the Kentucky Derby dream and a realist who knows how to keep the chase in perspective.
The trainer has engaged in that mentally draining wrestling match more than once, but he would still like Conquest Typhoon to force him into that position in the Grade III, $550,000 Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park on Saturday.
While stakes winner Royal Son was deemed the Spiral's 7-2 morning-line favorite and Grade III winner Metaboss tabbed as his main threat, Conquest Typhoon is the most accomplished member of the 11-horse field set to vie for 50 qualifying points the victor will earn toward a spot in the Kentucky Derby.
He has made all but two of his seven career starts against graded stakes company, collecting victories in the Grade II Summer Stakes at Woodbine last September and the Grade III Cecil B. DeMille Stakes at Del Mar in November. The only time the son of Stormy Atlantic has been worse than third came when he finished a thoroughly decent fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf at Santa Anita Park last Oct. 31.
Even if Conquest Typhoon wins the 11⁄8-mile Spiral, Casse has a reservation about moving on toward the first leg of the Triple Crown: The bay colt has never started over a dirt track.
This weekend's best-case scenario for Casse and his horse's owner, Conquest Stables, is to be in position to make that tough decision.
"I don't want to say that if he won and won impressively we would definitely not think about the Derby. But more than likely, not," Casse said Thursday. "This horse is eligible for the Queen's Plate (on the Polytrack at Woodbine on July 5). And we have some questions in our mind if 11⁄8 miles is too far for him.
"If we don't run well on Saturday, we'll regroup and probably just stay on the turf. If he were to run well, say he runs well but not off the chart, then we'll concentrate on trying to win the Queen's Plate with him. But if he gave us just a super effort, there is a chance we would go to Churchill Downs and train there. But he would have to have a really big effort in the Spiral for us to even think about the Derby."
Casse said Churchill Downs' main track has played particularly favorable to turf/synthetic horses making the transition.
The most obvious example is Animal Kingdom, who won the 2011 Spiral Stakes en route to claiming the Kentucky Derby in his first try on dirt. Further backing up that argument are performances from the likes of Dullahan, who won all his Grade I races on synthetic tracks but ran third in the 2012 Kentucky Derby, and Paddy O'Prado, a future Grade I winner on turf who finished third in the 2010 Kentucky Derby.
"I've said for the last 7-8 years that Churchill Downs, to me, especially in the spring, not the fall, is as close to synthetic as any track there is," Casse said. "There is a good reason for it. Churchill Downs has a lot of clay in its track and the warmer it gets, the harder it gets and the less penetration in the top of the surface occurs. And that is what a synthetic horse likes. On the turf they bounce over the top, same thing with synthetic. And that's what happens.
"'I think back to when I had Seaside Retreat (10th in the 2006 Kentucky Derby). He ran second in the Spiral, we took him to the Blue Grass Stakes when Keeneland was still dirt ... and he got beat 30 lengths, he couldn't handle it. But we took him to Churchill and he trained well and ... he beat half the field. It was just a huge improvement."
None of the above will come into play if Conquest Typhoon does not improve off his seasonal debut, though there is reason to think a move forward is on the horizon.
His third-place finish behind Metaboss in the Grade III El Camino Real Derby on Feb. 14 was his first start since Nov. 30. And instead of coming from off the pace as is his usual style, Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith had Conquest Typhoon up on the lead down the backstretch trying to take advantage of pedestrian fractions that saw the half-mile go in :49.25.
"He hadn't run in three months so that was one thing," Casse said. "I thought he actually ran really well. Typically, I didn't necessarily want to be up on the pace but Mike thought, as it was, there was no pace, so he said let's go with it. But I don't think we're going to run in that problem on Saturday. He has enough speed where Mike should be able to be wherever Mike wants to be. And wherever Mike wants to be is where I want to be."