State of Honor has always stood out in a crowd.
That’s because the strapping bay stands 17 hands one inch high, or roughly 175 centimetres (five feet nine inches). He’ll definitely be hard to miss Saturday in the Kentucky Derby, the first jewel of American racing’s Triple Crown.
“He’s a big, beautiful horse,” said trainer Mark Casse. “When you figure (early 4-1 Derby favourite) Classic Empire is (16 hands, one inch or 165 centimetres), State of Honor is a very big horse.
“He’s also got a big, big heart. He tries every time.”
Jockey Jose Lezcano will ride State of Honor for the first time Saturday. The Ontario-bred and owned horse will combine with stablemate Classic Empire to give the 56-year-old Casse, an Indianapolis native, two shots in the 20-horse field at achieving his lifetime goal of winning the Derby.
Casse’s best Derby finish was fifth in ’15 with the late Danzig Moon.
“It’s the most important race, ever, in the world for me,” said Casse, Canada’s top trainer a record nine times. “When I was eight years old, I did a TV show and said I was going to win the Kentucky Derby and I’d love to check it off.
“I would’ve loved to try checking it off when my dad was still alive. It’s been a tough week, many tears have been shed and so many stories told. The Kentucky Derby and Churchill Downs were very dear to my father.”
Casse’s father, Norman Sr., â€” a key figure in the Florida breeding and sales industries â€” died March 6 at age 79.
Classic Empire has garnered much attention in Kentucky after winning the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby on April 15. He drew the No. 14 post Wednesday.
State of Honor, with just one win in 10 career starts, comes in well under the radar at early 30-1 odds and will break from the No. 6 post. But Casse remains bullish on the horse.
“He has a legitimate chance, make no mistake about it,” Casse said. “In any 20-horse field, he just needs a clean break.
“It’s been much discussed that there’s not much speed in the race and he’s going to be close to the lead or maybe even be on it. So much of winning the Kentucky Derby and being ready is having the horse peaking at the right time and he’s doing that. In fact, he’s kind of been the talk around the track on how good he’s training and how good he looks.”
While Casse chases a first-ever Derby win Saturday, State of Honor looks to join very exclusive company. Only two Canadian-breds have won the prestigious race â€” the legendary Northern Dancer in 1964 and Sunny’s Halo in ’83.
Mine That Bird, Canada’s top two-year-old male in 2008, was a shocking 50-1 longshot Derby winner in ’09. But he was bred in the U.S. and had been sold to foreign interests prior to his stunning win.
State of Honor began racing last season at Woodbine, needing five races to register his first win. Since then, he’s finished second four times, including in the Florida Derby on April 1, his last start, and the Tampa Bay Derby in March.
Points from those two races helped State of Honor cement a Derby berth, delighting Penny Conrad, who co-owns the horse with her husband, Manfred.
“After every race Penny would ask, ‘Do we have enough points,’ ” Casse said. “And I’d say, ‘We’re getting closer, Penny.’
“Then after the Florida Derby she asked, ‘Do we have enough points?’ I said, ‘We do,’ and she just started crying. I told her I wanted them to come out this week and see the festivities because it’s like nothing they’ve ever seen before.”
Coincidentally, much of State of Honor’s success has come since Casse moved the horse from Tapeta to dirt.
“Obviously he went to Toronto because the Conrads love to watch their horses run and he’s Canadian-bred,” Casse said. “He trained and ran well but not great.
“Last November, we sent him to Palm Meadows Training Centre (in Boynton, Fla.) and as soon as he got on dirt he was like a different horse. It happens, some horses like grass, some horses like dirt, some horses like synthetic.”
On Saturday, horses must not only contend with a large crowd â€” last year’s announced attendance of 167,227 was the second-most ever â€” there’s also Churchill Downs’ lengthy opening stretch from the starting gate to the first turn.
“Most horses have gone into a turn within about an eighth of a mile, which naturally slows you down,” Casse said. “In the Kentucky Derby, you’re going to have 5/16s of a mile, almost, of straightaway and when some horses see that there’s no slowing them down.
“The good news is one of Jose’s fortes is getting a horse to quiet down. But you just never know because there’s nothing to judge how a horse will perform in this type of race because they’ve never seen anything like it.”
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press