LOUISVILLE - Back home at Woodbine, they are the top jock and top rider, respectively, each coming off one of the best years ever seen in Canadian racing.
But early Saturday evening at Churchill Downs, both Luis Contreras and Mark Casse will attempt to replicate that success on their sport’s biggest stage.
Casse, who has topped the trainers standings at Woodbine for the past five years, will start 30-1 shot Prospective in the 138th Derby and provide the mount to Contreras, who swept all three legs of the Canadian Triple Crown last season.
It is Casse’s second Derby starter — Seaside Retreat was 10th in 2006 —and the first mount for Contreras. It’s a tall order for any jockey to work out a clean trip in the mayhem of a 20-horse field, never mind a rookie to the dance.
“I would be more concerned if we were the favourite,” Casse said of the possible nerves facing Contreras, who won last year’s Queen’s Plate with Inglorious. “I look at Luis and he comes in with no pressure. He’s won a lot of races and this is his dream.”
Contreras, who rode at Woodbine on Friday and will fly to the Bluegrass State on Saturday morning, has a couple of other rides prior to the Derby, which should help him get acclimatized to the 150,000 plus expected to cram the historic Kentucky track.
“It’s a good thing just for the nerves,” Contreras’ agent, Anthony Esposito said on Friday. “You don’t want to be sitting in the (jockey’s room) all day.”
It’s Esposito’s job to pump his client’s tires, but the agent doesn’t think Contreras will be intimidated in his maiden Derby effort.
“I think he rides better when the big money is on the line,” Esposito said. “He proved that in the Canadian Triple Crown. He’s ridden in enough big races.”
The other quality that both Casse and Esposito love is the jockey’s willingness to be brazen in the saddle. In a race like the Derby, aggression is essential at the most opportune time to avoid being buried behind a wall of horses.
“He is definitely fearless,” Esposito said. “If the hole presents itself and he has to get aggressive, he will put the horse in that position.”
As for Casse, dominating Canadian racing has been huge for his career, but he’s anxious for the next step.
With clients like Kentuckian John Oxley, who owns Prospective, Casse believes he has the horse-power to become a more regular participant in top U.S. races like the Triple Crown.
“This year, we have 18 two-year-olds bought for just this purpose,” said Casse, who had an impressive winner here for Oxley on Friday with 3-year-old filly, Funny Proposition. “I’ve been doing this for over 30 years and I’ve never been in the position I’m in right now.”
Casse willingly admits Prospective will need much to go his way if he’s to pull off the upset. But the horse has been based at Churchill for the past six weeks — longer than any other in the field — and has trained well over the track.
“There’s some hot-headed horses and the heat and the crowd is going to be hard on them,” Casse said. “Our horse is calm, cool and collected.
“We’re going to sit back and relax and hope the rest of the field comes back.”