01/06/2016 11:04AM

2015 Eclipse Awards: Airoforce

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Coady Photography

Mark Casse and his son Norman didn’t bring all their best horses to Saratoga in the summer of 2015. Knowing Airoforce would need more time to be ready to make it to the races, he stayed behind in Kentucky all summer to train. In the end, that might prove to be one of the wisest decision the father-and-son team made in a year where they made plenty of smart moves.

The patience demonstrated in bringing Airoforce along paid off handsomely in the fall as the son of Colonel John won three of four starts, including graded stakes on turf and dirt to earn a spot as a finalist for the Eclipse Award as North America’s champion 2-year-old male.

Airoforce won the Grade 3 Bourbon on turf and, after a neck loss in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, he won the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club in his dirt debut to fuel dreams of the Kentucky Derby in May.

:: 2015 Eclipse Awards: Finalist profiles

Airoforce, owned by John Oxley, is a son of 2008 Santa Anita Derby and Travers winner Colonel John out of the Cuvee mare Chocolate Pop. Bred in Kentucky by Stewart M. Madison, Airoforce was sold for $20,000 at the 2014 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky fall yearling sale, then brought $350,000 at the OBS 2-year-old auction in April. But he wasn’t deemed far enough along to bring to Saratoga, where the Casses endured one frustration after another for seven weeks.

Instead, Airoforce didn’t debut until Sept. 5, when he won a $123,000 six-furlong maiden race on the turf at Kentucky Downs.

“He was a little further behind, so by the time he came from our farm to the racetrack it was too late to think about Saratoga,” Norman Casse told the Churchill Downs publicity staff the morning after the Kentucky Jockey Club. “That may have ended up being a blessing in disguise for him. He got to train here all summer. Churchill is a really good place to train during the summer. People take it for granted because all the Saratoga horses get all the hype. It’s really easy to say looking back now, but he was touting us all” along.

In his second start, over yielding turf in the Grade 3 Bourbon at Keeneland, Airoforce overcame post 13 in a 14-horse field to win by 2 1/2 lengths. Since the Bourbon provided Airoforce a fees-paid berth into the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, that was the next logical race for him. Airoforce ran another terrific race, only to be outfinished by the Irish-invader Hit It a Bomb, losing by a neck.

On Nov. 28, equipped with blinkers for the first time, Airoforce made his dirt debut in the 13-horse Kentucky Jockey Club run over an extremely sloppy Churchill track. Kept in abeyance and between horses down the backside by Julien Leparoux, Airoforce tipped wide into the stretch and powered home a 1 3/4-length winner over the Bob Baffert-trained favorite Mor Spirit. Mor Spirit came back to win the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Futurity on Dec. 19.

Airoforce is in training at the Palm Meadows training center in south Florida. He is tentatively scheduled to make his 3-year-old debut in the Grade 3, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes on Feb. 13 at Tampa Bay Downs.