In the Paddock

Not all Derby moments are winning ones. Here’s one from the 2021 edition that will stick around a while.

Mark Casse walked in small circles, studied the tops of his brown dress shoes, the bricks and the grass as the last few minutes before post time of Saturday’s Kentucky Derby ticked away.

He stood in the middle of the paddock at Churchill Downs, just to the right of the Longines clock and away from the larger crowds that flanked fellow Derby trainers John Sadler, Todd Pletcher and Bob Baffert. Those four men, two in Racing’s Hall of Fame and two headed that way, stayed away from the crowded box seat area and chose to watch the Derby from the big screen monitor high atop the saddling stalls.

The spot never seemed like a good location to me, far from the action and not in-person, but probably best for them to be able to follow their own charges and not worry about the inevitable distractions and disruptions that come with a close-quarters crowd on Derby Day.

I’d seen Casse two days before the Derby, from a distance, but regretted not getting chance to catch up and say hello face to face for the first time in well over a year. Maybe it had been since Pegasus Day in January 2020 at Gulfstream Park, or maybe even as far back as the 2019 Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita Park, I couldn’t remember. That happens these days.

Casse saddled Helium, winner of the Tampa Bay Derby, and Soup And Sandwich, runner-up in the Florida Derby, a few minutes before and was about to participate in his eighth Kentucky Derby with a couple longshots.

“Good luck Mark. Just like Fort Erie, let’s go.”

He laughed at my reference to the trip to the 2018 Prince of Wales Stakes at Fort Erie, when I got to tag along as his guest to see Wonder Gadot win the second jewel of the Canadian Triple Crown, and then returned to his own world. He walked a circle or two more before crouching down like a catcher behind home plate, grabbed a bloom from the bed of white Petunias and stepped over the grass onto the rubber pavers near the saddling stalls. While he pulled apart the bloom I thought to ask if that was some superstitious tradition but figured it was just a way to ease the pre-race anxiety that comes with a big race.

The field eventually started to load for the 147th Derby, which returned to its rightful spot on the calendar on the first Saturday in May after the pandemic shifted the Triple Crown schedule in 2020, and Casse was on the move again. He stretched over the flower bed and onto the grass, accepted a fist bump and stood to my right. Nothing was said and when the field left the gate a minute before 7 p.m. on a picture-perfect day in Louisville, Casse leaned a bit to his left, I clapped him on the back and we both watched the opening strides of the Derby shake out.

“Talk about access,” was the first thought through my head.

Then as Soup And Sandwich and Helium chased Medina Spirit through the stretch the first time and around the first turn things shifted. It seemed to go from reporter-and-trainer to friend-and-friend.

The thought, “why not? come on Mark,” crossed my mind.

We’d met in 1998, when I was starting out at Thoroughbred Times and reporting on End Sweep’s quest for the world record number of individual 2-year-old winners. Casse took a hiatus from training around that time and managed the stallion – among other jobs – at the late Harry Mangurian’s Mockingbird Farm in Ocala. Always accessible and always quotable, Casse proved the perfect non-racetrack industry contact for a neophyte who went to Kentucky thinking he knew the industry but found out quick that wasn’t the case.

Neither of us said a word up the backstretch and around the far turn. Soup And Sandwich gave way first, dropping back suddenly on the far turn just to the inside of his stablemate who stayed once-paced while Hot Rod Charlie slipped past to his inside and Essential Quality ran past to his outside. Helium stayed on somewhat and was still seventh at the eighth pole while Soup And Sandwich plummeted to last – we learned Sunday he displaced his palate.

A colleague a few feet away rooted hard for Mandaloun in deep stretch – he stood to score a huge future wager bet – and at the finish Medina Spirit held on in a four-way battle to the post. The rest of the field filtered past, Helium finishing midpack and eighth, beaten 10 1/2 lengths. Several seconds after 18th-place finisher Dynamic One crossed the finish Soup And Sandwich jogged past.

“I hope he’s all right,” Casse said, the first words he’d spoken in about 10 minutes, before walking out of the paddock and through the tunnel to the racetrack.

Thankfully Soup And Sandwich, along with Helium, walked off sound and checked out fine Sunday aside from displacing.

The Churchill Downs notes team quoted Casse after the race saying “we’ll regroup and see where we go from here.”

Here’s hoping I’m there for it.

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