12/04/2014 2:58PM

Hovdey: Eights running wild for Cassidy

Barbara D. Livingston
Ocho Ocho Ocho earns 10 points for the Kentucky Derby with this victory in the Delta Downs Jackpot.

What else is a dyed-in-the-wool Yankee like trainer Jim Cassidy going to do in the Deep South except bring a big, old carpet bag and try to fill it full of money?

Cassidy started off slowly, stepping up to the slots at the Delta Downs Casino in the southwestern Louisiana town of Vinton, not far from the Texas state line. He won 30 bucks just like that, took a break to count his blessings, then returned to take another 50.

“My third time in there I was giving it all back,” Cassidy said. “I was down to my last shot on the one-armed bandit, and I hit for 300, so I just put the three in my pocket and walked out.”

Slots conquered, Cassidy tried his luck at the racetrack next door. Some days, a man just can’t seem to lose, no matter how hard he tries. In the $200,000 Treasure Chest Stakes, Cassidy cinched the saddle on Yahilwa and watched the Medaglia d’Oro filly win by better than two lengths under Mike Smith.

A little while later, Cassidy was back in the $1 million Delta Downs Jackpot with the Street Sense colt Ocho Ocho Ocho. He punched the button, held his breath as Smith squeezed through a tight spot entering the far turn, and watched his colt gut out a nose victory over Mr. Z at the end of the 1 1/16 miles. There followed the sound of $600,000 rattling into the tray.

Both Ocho Ocho Ocho and Yahilwa race for the DP Stable of Deron Pearson, a telecommunications executive who paid $200,000 for the colt at the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co. auction of 2-year-olds last spring in Florida. Yahilwa came from England.

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“That was his hip number – 888,” Cassidy said. “Deron had one of those omens. He told me if we got him, he was going to name him Ocho Ocho Ocho. But there was never any doubt we were going to get him.”

Lucky he wasn’t Hip 666.

The Delta Downs races were Nov. 22, ancient history in the racing game, but they continue to resonate. Ocho Ocho Ocho’s game performance, along with a stout speed figure, added his name to the growing list of young horses to watch as Kentucky Derby season approaches. He has run three times now without losing.

“He’s not a big horse at all, but when he lays his body down, he’s got as big a stride as any horse I’ve seen,” Cassidy said. “He gets low – real aerodynamic. Coming off two sprints, though, it was his pedigree that made me think he could get the mile and one-sixteenth.”

Street Sense won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the Kentucky Derby, while Ocho Ocho Ocho’s dam, the Horse Chestnut mare Winner, traces directly to the unbeaten champion Personal Ensign.

As for Yahilwa, she is coming right back Saturday at Los Alamitos in the $200,000 Bayakoa at 1 1/16 miles. Zenyatta Stakes runner-up Tiz Midnight tops a field that includes Yahilwa’s stablemate Oscar Party, a Pearson-Cassidy filly who has lured Gary Stevens to ride.

Cassidy’s participation in the short holiday-season meet at Los Alamitos is significant, given his position as president of the California Thoroughbred Trainers. He is hopeful that the December dates will be able to tap into some of the good vibes left from the successful November meet at Del Mar, although it did end on a sour note for Cassidy when stable star Tom’s Tribute could finish no better than third in last week’s Seabiscuit Handicap. During the Del Mar summer meet, Tom’s Tribute won both the Eddie Read and the Del Mar Mile.

“His hind leg got ripped up all the way from his hock to his foot,” Cassidy said. “I’m not even sure where it happened in the race. It blew up pretty good, but we’ve got it pretty well under control now. Thank goodness there was no soft-tissue damage.”

Racing at Los Alamitos is dirt only, with a main track expanded from its former five-eighths to create one of the longest stretch runs in the nation. The Bayakoa is one of three graded races to be run over the next three weeks.

“You can’t expect them to match Del Mar,” Cassidy said. “But it’s starting off pretty good in terms of entries. Sometimes it’s a little hard to believe – here we are at Los Alamitos, running for a good pot in a Grade 2 race for fillies and mares.”

Cassidy said he’d pass on the $500,000 Los Alamitos Futurity on Dec. 20 with Ocho Ocho Ocho, who is still recovering from his Louisiana experience.

“My biggest concern was how tired he’d get since he wasn’t used to running on a deep, sandy track like they had the day of the race,” Cassidy said. “I’ve got to hand it to him the way he hung in there, but he was pretty tired afterward. He can be tough, but that day I could have had lunch on his hind end in the winner’s circle, and it wouldn’t have bothered him.”

Cassidy anticipates a January start for Ocho Ocho Ocho to begin his 3-year-old campaign. He’s already earned 10 points toward a berth in the Kentucky Derby.

“That’s a long way off,” Cassidy said. “I hope we can have some fun along the way.”