Mark Casse watched the chestnut 2-year-old work out, and immediately picked up the phone to call owner John Oxley. “We’re going to win the Kentucky Derby with this horse,” Casse said.
As things go in racing, the colt didn’t win the Derby, didn’t run in it and didn’t even start as a 2-year-old. But almost four years later, he’s a millionaire, a Grade 1 winner and still one of Casse’s favorites. Saturday, he takes on champions Arrogate and California Chrome in the $12 million Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park while racing for Oxley and new partners Earle Mack, Chester Broman and Moustapha Fostock.
Welcome to the big time, Noble Bird.
“When he was a 2-year-old, a couple times I breezed him, I had to call Mr. Oxley,” Casse said after Noble Bird won the Pimlico Special (by 11 lengths) last spring. “He was just phenomenal. Then we had some issues with him. We just kept giving him time off. I’m fortunate I have a lot of good people that we train for and he just had a little of this and a little of that.”
Noble Bird is something of an enigma – capable of an effort like that Pimlico Special or back-to-back stakes scores in Kentucky last fall, but also seemingly as likely to lose by double digits as he did in last year’s Alysheba, Met Mile, Whitney and Clark Handicap. The performances confound, but no longer confuse, Casse and his assistant/son Norm.
“He has to break sharp and he has to get comfortable very early in the race,” said Norm Thursday after Noble Bird paddock-schooled at Gulfstream. “If he’s not, forget it. He doesn’t have to be on the lead, but he has to be there or with a horse that he thinks he’s better than. If he breaks bad or he’s in between or wide or whatever, he becomes very rank and unmanageable.”
The results are good – or bad – performances. If the start goes well and he finds a position, Noble Bird can be a tough assignment for any horse. If he breaks slowly, gets squeezed early or otherwise feels pressure he didn’t create, he might as well have stayed in the barn. Last year, his chart could have been drawn with a yo-yo: sixth in an Oaklawn allowance (off a six-month layoff); good second in the Ben Ali at Keeneland; eighth after blowing the start and red-lining on the first turn in the Alysheba at Churchill Downs; tow-roping the Pimlico Special; sixth when inside and pressured in the Met Mile; fifth in the Whitney when outbroken by Frosted; wins in the Lukas Classic and Fayette in October and then a seventh after starting like a slug in the Grade 1 Clark.
Norm Casse has seen it enough to recognize the problem, even if there’s nothing he can do about it.
“I think he’s nervous around other horses, that’s the main reason,” he said. “We’ve tried to get him over those things and he’s never going to change. He is who he is. When he doesn’t have things go his way going into the first turn and he runs bad, he comes back blowing so hard that you’d think he’d never had a half-mile work. But he can run a 115 Beyer (speed figure) and come back to the winner’s circle not blowing. The nerves get the better of him when he goes through a little adversity early in a race.”
Bred in Kentucky by Jack Swain, and purchased as a yearling at Fasig-Tipton July by Casse, Noble Bird will need to find his comfort zone to compete Saturday. The son of Birdstone and the Tiznow mare Anyhow has never run a Beyer beyond 110 while Arrogate and California Chrome have hit 122 and 119, respectively.
Now 6, Noble Bird wasn’t really under consideration for the Pegasus. Oxley didn’t own an entry, that Clark race was awful and a spring target seemed far more likely. Then Noble Bird got to the Palm Meadows training center in Florida and started working out like Peter Sagan including a bullet half-mile in :47.50 Dec. 31, a bullet 5 furlongs in 1:00.65 Jan. 8 and another bullet half-mile in :48.20 Jan. 15.
“He’s awesome, couldn’t be doing any better,” said Norm Casse. “Mr. Oxley and Dad both weren’t crazy about running in the Pegasus especially after he ran so poorly in the Clark at Churchill. But he’s worked so well and each week he’s trained progressively better since then. He’s almost forcing us to go to this race. We’ll regret it forever if we don’t run this horse and give him the chance.”
There’s really only one plan for jockey Julien Leparoux. He’ll let Noble Bird break sharply from stall four and try to find some zen by the first turn. If he’s in front, great. Arrogate (1) and California Chrome (12) have the field’s extreme post positions which might provide a sliver of an upset chance for some others.
“The dream scenario for us is we break sharp and get the lead going into the first turn,” said Norm Casse. “They’re not going to chase us (with California Chrome). They’re going to watch Arrogate the whole time. We break sharp and now Mike (Smith) and Victor (Espinoza) are watching each other and they let us go loose on the lead. That’s when Noble Bird runs his best race, when horses are running from behind him. That’s our shot. Right there. We know what it is.”
And they might as well take it.
Pegasus Notes: Noble Bird is 25-1 on the morning line, behind 6-5 California Chrome and 7-5 Arrogate. Others in the 1 1/8-mile Grade 1 (with trainer, jockey, odds) are: Prayer For Relief (Dale Romans, Florent Geroux, 50-1), Neolithic (Todd Pletcher, John Velazquez, 30-1), War Story (Jorge Navarro, Antonio Gallardo, 50-1), War Envoy (Mick Ruis, Luis Saez, 50-1), Shaman Ghost (Jimmy Jerkens, Jose Ortiz, 20-1), Semper Fortis (Doug O’Neill, Tyler Gaffalione, 50-1), Keen Ice (Pletcher, Javier Castellano, 12-1), Breaking Lucky (Reade Baker, Luis Contrerars, 25-1), Eragorn (Laura Wohlers, Edgar Prado, 50-1). Post time is 5:40 p.m. as the 12th race on the card . . . NBC Sports will air a 90-minute live broadcast starting at 4:30 p.m.