The 2015 season was already going to go down as one during which bucket list items were checked off with a vengeance in the Casse Racing shedrow.
In addition to notching his career-best single season earnings, the proteges of trainer Mark Casse’s program gave the longtime horseman his first Breeders’ Cup victories last month, with Mile heroine Tepin almost certain to become his first Eclipse Award champion once voting commences.
What Casse still seeks most of all, though, are horses capable of winning the Kentucky Derby. On a day when juvenile talent took center stage at Churchill Downs, his son and top assistant Norman Casse led in a pair of colts who just might lead the way in that quest for 2016.
An already banner year for the Casse crew is poised to carry over once the calendar flips as John Oxley’s Airoforce thrived in his first start on dirt, fighting past 2-to-1 favorite Mor Spirit to capture Saturday’s Grade II, $200,000 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes by 1 3/4 lengths over a sloppy Churchill Downs surface.
Having a talented 2-year-old win beneath the Twin Spires can’t help but prompt thoughts of what the first weekend of May could bring. Not only did Airoforce inspire some legitimate pondering of that equation with the way he responded under jockey Julien Leparoux, but his well-regarded stablemate Conquest Big E did the same one race earlier when he captured a one-mile allowance optional claiming test, putting in a stout kick of his own to win by two lengths.
“We’ve never been in this position before where we’ve had two horses that are already in the (Kentucky Derby) Future Bet that came in and delivered the way they were supposed to and that we can take down to Palm Meadows very optimistic about,” Norman Casse said. “Now the real fun begins. The sleep ends and the fun begins.”
The talent has been there from the beginning where Airoforce is concerned. The son of Colonel John handily won his first two starts on turf, including a victory in the Grade III Bourbon Stakes at Keeneland on October 4, and fell just a head short of winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf on October 30.
The gray colt had routinely put in monster works over the Churchill Downs main track, however, and Casse was just waiting for the right spot to see how he would handle the dirt in a race situation.
After rating midpack in the 13-horse field through an opening half in 47.61 set by Derby Express, Airoforce began picking his way between horses and made a three-wide bid in the lane, surging past Gun Runner to his inside then driving to the wire to cover the 1 1/16-miles distance in 1:45.48.
“He’s good on anything, we’ll just have to see on the fast track how good he’s going to be,” said Leparoux, who also won the day’s other graded stakes, the Grade II Golden Rod for 2-year-old fillies aboard Carina Mia. “Usually when a turf horse goes first time on the dirt, when you start asking them, they sometimes spin their wheels and they don’t go anywhere. But he was just fine, he kept coming on very nice.”
Both Airoforce and Conquest Big E will head down to Palm Meadows in Florida for a brief freshening where Casse will have the good problem of trying to keep his top two Derby hopefuls separate from each other during the prep season.
“We’ll hold our excitement a bit because this was a sloppy track but ... he (Airoforce) won at Churchill Downs and he did what he was supposed to do,” Norman Casse said.
Carina Mia reigns in Golden Rod
Three Chimneys Farm’s Carina Mia showed she could carry her speed over a route of ground, stamping herself as an early Kentucky Oaks hopeful with her 4 1/4 length triumph over previously unbeaten Stageplay in the $200,000 Golden Rod Stakes going 1 1/16-miles.
In her first try beyond 6 1/2 furlongs, Carina Mia validated the potential she showed when she broke her maiden by 9 3/4 lengths at Keeneland on Oct. 29. The daughter of Malibu Moon advanced to the lead heading into the first turn and had plenty in reserve after going the opening half-mile in 49.07.
“It’s great because we weren’t sure if she’d stay,” said Doug Cauthen, vice chairman of Three Chimneys. “There is a lot of stamina in her pedigree, but she’s just so fast that you never know (about distance). But she seems like she’s listening to Julien pretty well.”
Sent off as the 2-to-1 second choice, Carina Mia covered the distance in 1:45.42.