Trainer Mark Casse had been saving a certain name until he found a worthy recipient. Because any horse that was going to be saddled with the moniker of Ernie Semersky better be capable of doing justice to the flamboyant, boundary-pushing, wonderfully driven co-owner of Conquest Stables.
“Ernie kept saying, ‘You don’t have enough courage’ — well, he said another word — ‘to name one after me,’” Casse laughed. “I guess it must have been last April or so, I called and said, ‘OK, I found him.’ He goes, ‘What?’ I said, ‘I found Big E.’”
Like his owner, you can’t miss Conquest Big E when he appears on the scene. The gray son of Tapit is striking even to untrained eyes and his on-track talent teases of something massive in the making.
He looks every bit the part of a 3-year-old runner who can fuel dreams. He’s about to get his chance to see if he’s worthy of carrying that hope to the next level.
The Kentucky Derby trail is all about asking hard questions of its young runners, and a doozy of a query is set for Saturday. A compact but accomplished field of six featuring Conquest Big E in post No. 4, Grade I winner Greenpointcrusader in post No. 5 and unbeaten Remsen Stakes winner Mohaymen in post No. 2 were entered Wednesday for the Grade II, $350,000 Holy Bull Stakes going 1 1/16 miles at Gulfstream Park.
With two wins in four starts last season, Conquest Big E showed Casse he at least deserves to be tossed into the deep end of the pool in these early steps toward the first Saturday in May. An impressive maiden win second time out at Keeneland on Oct. 2 earned him a start in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile later that month.
He’s run like a good horse. He trains like a very good horse. He’s got to step up his game. He doesn’t have to win this weekend. But he needs to run good. I need him to show me he can handle the two turns and finish. I’d rather find out now, let’s get the answers now.
Mark Casse, trainer of Conquest Big E
That outing showed how much the big gray colt still had to learn, however, as he never got comfortable between horses and finished eighth. He got his act together and grew up next time out, winning a 1-mile allowance race over a sealed, sloppy Churchill Downs track on Nov. 28. Most important, he showed some bravery that day when he was pinned between horses again.
“I thought in his allowance race he was kind of the bull’s-eye,” Casse said. “He was the big favorite and ... there was no question, they were trying to keep him penned in and they did a good job of that, but he did respond and handle that very well. I’m glad it happened. Those are the valuable lessons that later on down the road could mean the difference between running well and not running well.
“He’s run like a good horse. He trains like a very good horse. He’s got to step up his game. He doesn’t have to win this weekend. But he needs to run good. I need him to show me he can handle the two turns and finish. I’d rather find out now, let’s get the answers now.”
Were it not for Semersky’s determined self, his goofball colt would be the object of another owner’s classic aspirations.
Hip No. 234 was not on Casse’s short list as he worked his way through the 2014 Keeneland September Yearling Sale catalog. Yet when Semersky — who owns Conquest Stables with longtime partner Dory Newell — saw the Gainesway-bred colt in the back walking ring, he loudly proclaimed his affinity and threw down the $700,000 final bid it would take to own him.
Conquest Big E: 4-2-1-0 record, $75,440 career earnings
“He wasn’t even on our list and ... Ernie saw him and, he has a beautiful head and he carries himself well. And Ernie was like, ‘I want that horse!’” Casse said. “A lot of times we’ll buy horses that Ernie never sees. He relies on the team he’s put together to buy them. But that horse in particular, Ernie picked that horse.”
Taking a page from his owner, Conquest Big E was a handful in his early training. When he was being broken, he would regularly inflict heart failure on the barn staff thanks to his tendency to rear up and stay on his hind legs for 10 to 15 seconds at a time, according to Casse.
Once the veteran trainer started breezing the colt, he knew Semersky was right on in pegging him as “his” horse. After Saturday, he’ll have a read on whether this is Conquest Stables’ Derby horse.
“We kept that name for a while ... and then for it to be the Tapit, the one he picked out was special,” Casse said. “I know he’s a very nice horse and if he’s not chasing the Derby trail, he can be very good doing other things. Maybe he’ll be a great sprinter. But let’s find out now.”
Holy Bull Stakes
What: Kentucky Derby prep points race for 3-year-olds
Where: Gulfstream Park
When: 5:05 p.m.
Purse: $350,000 (Grade 2)
Distance: 1 1/16 miles