02/17/2016 2:26PM

Derby Watch: Airoforce brightens tough time for Casse

Churchill Downs/Reed Palmer Photography
Airoforce, who won the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes in his final start at 2, makes his 3-year-old debut Saturday in the Risen Star at Fair Grounds.

Mark Casse’s life these days reads like the opening sentence from Charles Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities.” For him, it is the best of times and the worst of times.

A seven-time Sovereign Award-winning trainer in Canada and a finalist again for 2015, Casse has one of the most powerful barns in North America, one that gets stronger every year. Last year, he earned his first Breeders’ Cup wins with Eclipse Award winner Tepin and likely Sovereign champion 2-year-old filly Catch a Glimpse.

He is squarely in the hunt for his first Kentucky Derby win, most notably with the highly regarded Airoforce, who makes his 3-year-old debut Saturday in the Grade 2, $400,000 Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds.

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On Wednesday, Riker – the likely Sovereign champion 2-year-old male – moved over to his stable following a recent private purchase.

But Casse’s father, mentor, and the man he calls his “idol,” Norman, is seriously ill.


This is a family that is remarkably close and influential. Norman Casse Sr., 79, was in the sport for 40 years, running a successful breeding operation in Ocala, Fla., and overseeing the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co. as its chairman for 27 years. Mark Casse, 55, named his eldest son Norman after his father, and they, too, are extremely close, working alongside one another. Norman, 32, is his father’s top assistant, and when Tepin won the Breeders’ Cup Mile last fall, Mark Casse was overcome with emotion when crediting his son for Tepin’s development.

It is with that as a backdrop that Casse will head from south Florida to New Orleans on Saturday for the Risen Star. He is eager for the Risen Star, for as good as Airoforce looked when winning the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes last fall, that race has looked all the better since.

“He ran them down, and little did we know who we were running down,” Casse said Wednesday.

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They know now. Airoforce got up to beat Mor Spirit, who has come back to take the Los Alamitos Futurity and the Robert B. Lewis Stakes. Third-place finisher Mo Tom subsequently captured the Lecomte Stakes and is among Airoforce’s rivals on Saturday, as is Lecomte fourth-place finisher Gun Runner.

“We’re ready,” said Casse, who said Airoforce was to travel to New Orleans on Thursday. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you we’re gonna win, but I will tell you he’s ready. We’re in a good place.”

Airoforce ran four times at age 2, with three wins and a close second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. The Kentucky Jockey Club was his lone start on dirt, but it was strictly circumstances – and a sound understanding of economics – that put Airoforce on turf to start his career.

Airoforce, a son of Colonel John, was purchased at OBS last April for $350,000 by owner John Oxley. Minor setbacks prevented Airoforce from spending the summer at Saratoga. As Airoforce was being prepared at Churchill Downs for his debut, Casse had to chose between a $38,000 pot for maidens at Churchill on dirt or one for $120,000 on turf at Kentucky Downs.

He decided to try the turf, and after Airoforce won his debut Sept. 5, Casse decided to keep Airoforce on turf for the Grade 3 Bourbon at Keeneland on Oct. 4. He overcame post 13 of 14 to win that race, so it made sense to remain on turf for the Breeders’ Cup, also at Keeneland. After that race, the logical way to conclude the season was to try dirt in the Kentucky Jockey Club on Nov. 28 at Churchill Downs.

“It was home,” Casse said. “He had been training at Churchill for three months.”


At the suggestion of jockey Julien Leparoux, blinkers were added for the Kentucky Jockey Club. Casse said Leparoux told him after both of Airoforce’s first two races that they would help, but since Airoforce was winning, Casse was apprehensive about changing.

“I thought in the Bourbon he had done some serious looking around, but I just couldn’t go and put blinkers on him for the Breeders’ Cup after winning his first two races,” Casse said. “He ran very spotty in the Breeders’ Cup. Julien said if he’d have kept his focus, he could have won the Breeders’ Cup, so we decided to put them on after he lost.”

Casse initially pondered several options for Airoforce’s first start of this year. But after Airoforce emerged from a work a few weeks ago with mucus in his airway, the window for making the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa or the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn became too tight. Once Airoforce returned to the work tab, the timing of the Risen Star was ideal.

It might be for the best anyway because many trainers, Casse included, believe the surface at Fair Grounds most approximates that at Churchill Downs, where Airoforce won the Kentucky Jockey Club and where the Derby will be run May 7.

Casse is seeking similar consistency with Riker, his new acquisition. Riker won all of his starts on synthetic last year at Woodbine, so Casse said a race like the Spiral Stakes on the Polytrack at Turfway Park on April 2 might be an appropriate starting point.

“And if any horse who likes synthetic is going to like dirt, it’s at Churchill Downs,” Casse said.

A previous version of this article misstated a race at Oaklawn for which Airoforce was being considered. It was the Southwest, not the Rebel.