04/19/2017 8:30AM

Hovdey: Casse's Canadian connections put him in good company

Coady Photography
Mark Casse trains Classic Empire, who won the Arkansas Derby (above) and is the likely favorite for the Kentucky Derby.

Mark Casse is not Canadian. It only looks that way.

It looks that way because he is a member of the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame, having been inducted in 2016. He has been Woodbine’s leading trainer 11 times, trained four horses to be Canadian Horse of the Year, and just last week received his ninth consecutive Sovereign Award as Canada’s outstanding trainer.

On Monday, Casse will find out if he has been elected to the Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., as well, but he is forgiven if he has other things on his mind. With the victory last Saturday of Eclipse Award champ Classic Empire in the Arkansas Derby, the native of Indiana is now fully invested in the Kentucky Derby with a colt who looms large as the likely favorite.

Casse has been praised for his patience and tenacity with Classic Empire, training him through foot and back problems, along with the occasional psychological meltdown – the horse, not the trainer – to arrive at the threshold of the Derby with a colt for the moment.

Anyway, as far as halls of fame go, the trainer is still getting a buzz from the Canadian honor. When it comes to Kentucky Derby karma, Casse is in very good company.

Trainers who have entered the Canadian Hall of Fame do not need a Canadian birth certificate. Horatio Luro, who won the Kentucky Derby with Decidedly and Northern Dancer, was from Argentina by way of the Waldorf Astoria. He is in the Canadian Hall of Fame.

So is Lou Cavalaris, an Ohio boy who leveraged his Canadian connections into numerous championships. Cavalaris had the 1968 Kentucky Derby won for about 48 hours with Dancer’s Image before the test came back positive for Bute.

The first trainer named to the Canadian Hall was Quebec’s Lucien Laurin, who won the Kentucky Derby in back-to-back years with Secretariat and Riva Ridge. If there is any justice, he will be joined someday by Ontario’s Eddie Hayward. All he did was beat the unbeatable Native Dancer in the 1953 Kentucky Derby with Dark Star.

David Cross, who hails from Vancouver and joined the Canadian Hall of Fame in 2006, orchestrated a nearly all-Canadian victory in the Kentucky Derby when he saddled Sunny’s Halo to win the race in 1983 for owner David Foster. Of the principals, only jockey Eddie Delahoussaye was from somewhere else. Louisiana, I think.

Sunny’s Halo was a big, bright chestnut with white splashed all over his face and hind legs. Once into his long, high gallop, he could be a relentless competitor, even in the face of nagging physical problems that kept him from being more memorable than he was.

At the end of his 2-year-old campaign, Sunny’s Halo needed time to heal hot shins and a dicey ankle. Cross sent his horse to California, where trainer Jesse Newsom looked after Sunny’s Halo until the main man arrived after Christmas. Cross was hoping for safe, dry tracks and a sensible progression of preps for the Kentucky Derby. What he got was an historic El Nino weather siege that dropped nearly 19 inches of rain on Los Angeles in January, February, and early March 1983.

“The racetrack was horrible that winter at Santa Anita,” Cross said in an interview with HRRN’s Jude Feld last year. “Remember, that was the winter Roving Boy broke down, and he was going to be one of the favorites for the Derby. I had to get out of there.”

So, he did. Just as Casse called an audible this season and switched Classic Empire from Palm Meadows to train in the peace and quiet of Winding Oaks Farm in Ocala, Fla., Cross hauled Sunny’s Halo away from Santa Anita and set up shop at Hollywood Park, with a long-range plan of making the 3-year-old preps at Oaklawn Park.

“He went back to galloping in January,” Cross said in the interview. “And we used the swimming pool. But he didn’t swim as much as people said he did. They made it sound like he went right from the pool into the Rebel and the Arkansas Derby. He didn’t. You swim too much, and they build muscle where they shouldn’t.

“I was getting on him myself. By February, I still hadn’t breezed him. Come March, I had to, but the main track wasn’t open, so I jacked up my irons and breezed him five-eighths of a mile on the half-mile training track. I parked him in the middle of the racetrack because I knew there was no way I could make the turns with him.

“Anyway, I finally got him pulled up, and he’d gone a minute and change, out the three-quarters in 13, and up the seven-eighths in 25 and 4. When I went to bed that night, I couldn’t wait to get to the track the next morning to make sure he’d come out all right.”

Let the record show that Sunny’s Halo woke up the next day in fine fettle and emerged from his unorthodox Hollywood Park training to win both the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby, after which he defeated a dead-game Desert Wine by two lengths in the 109th running of the Kentucky Derby, all done at three-week intervals.

The lesson? There’s more than one way to win a Kentucky Derby. Good luck guessing which one.