The COVID-19 pandemic has turned North American horse-racing upside down in 2020 but also created a silver lining for trainer Mark Casse.
Under normal circumstances, the Kentucky Derby would've been run May 2 at Churchill Downs and Casse said there's no way his horse, Enforceable, would've been ready to go. But with the race having been rescheduled for Saturday — some four months later — the three-year-old will break from the No. 3 post in the 18-horse field without fans in the stands.
"Had they run the Kentucky Derby in May, we wouldn't have been in it," Casse said via telephone Wednesday as he drove from Ocala, Fla., to Kentucky. "In fact, it took him almost until May before I felt like he'd rebounded and started training well and looking better.
"He's training as good as I've ever seen him train. We couldn't ask him to be doing any better coming into this race."
Enforceable has run four times this year. After registering a win (Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes on Jan. 18) and second (Grade 2 Risen Star on Feb. 15), he was fifth (Grade 2 Louisiana Derby on March 21) and fourth (Grade 2 Blue Grass Stakes on July 11) in his last two starts.
"After the Louisiana Derby, he was a tired horse that needed a rest," said Casse, 11 times Canada's top trainer. "We weighed him after he got home and he weighed around 970 pounds, which is extremely light for a three-year-old colt.
"I'd venture to say he weighs around 1,100 pounds now. The good news in Enforceable now is a much better horse than the one who ran two months ago. Giving him time was the right thing to do. We're happy where we are."
Enforceable has made 10 career starts (two wins, twice second, twice third) and earned US$397,150.
Enforceable has been listed as an early 30-1 Derby pick. Belmont Stakes winner Tiz The Law is the 3-5 favourite and will break from the No. 17 post.
But missing from the field is Art Collector, who had the second-highest odds to win the Kentucky Derby at 9-2. The Bruce Lunsford-owned horse suffered a minor injury and won't run.
"I'm friends with Bruce and I feel bad Art Collector is out," Casse said. "Bruce is from Kentucky and I'm sure his dream, like mine, has been to win the Kentucky Derby and to get so close, it's just disappointing.
"So many people think horses are machines and they're not. Any little thing can go wrong. We hold our breath all the time, we're in the holding-our-breath part right now."
A Derby victory is one of the few accomplishments to elude Casse, a 59-year-old native of Indianapolis.
He's won all three legs of Canada's Triple Crown and is enshrined in the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame. Casse has also captured two-thirds of the American Triple Crown, five Breeders' Cup races and this year was named for induction into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame south of the border.
"We're definitely going to need some luck and we'll see how good Enforceable is," Casse said. "He still has to prove he can run at the absolute top level but you never know that until you try and that's what we're going to do Saturday."
The COVID-19 pandemic has also forced a major shuffle of the Canadian Triple Crown schedule. The $1-million Queen's Plate, the opening leg, was to be run in June but was rescheduled to Sept. 12 at Woodbine Racetrack and will be followed by the Woodbine Mile on Sept. 19.
The Prince of Wales Stakes, the second leg of the Triple Crown, will go Sept. 29 at Fort Erie Racetrack with the Breeders' Stakes turf event slated for Oct. 24 at Woodbine.
Casse won't have a horse in the Plate as top prospect Muskoka Gold underwent colic surgery this off-season. But he'll provide the star appeal for the Woodbine Mile with '19 Preakness winner War of Will, who won his last start, the Grade 1 Maker's Mark Mile, at Keeneland on July 10.
War of Will unwittingly became a dubious part of Derby history last year when jockey Tyler Gaffalione had the son of War Front just behind leader Maximum Security coming off the final turn. But Maximum Security veered out and clipped heels with War of Will, who was forced to change course and thus impede rivals Long Range Toddy, Bodexpress and Country House.
Maximum Security finished 1 1/2 lengths ahead of 65-1 longshot Country House but was ultimately disqualified, giving Country House the historic win. War of Will never recovered, though, being elevated to seventh with the disqualification.
Casse will have two horses in the Mile, with the other being March to the Arch. The latter won the $175,000 Grade 2 King Edward Stakes at Woodbine on Aug. 15.
Although North American horse racing has resumed despite the pandemic, it's hardly business as usual for Casse. The trek to Kentucky is the first since February for Casse and his wife, Tina, and condensed racing schedules have created backlogs.
"Everything is so concentrated and we've not been able to run our horses as much as we'd like," Casse said. "It's frustrating for owners because it doesn't matter if horses are running or not, they're still paying the bills.
"Training racehorses is like putting a puzzle together and this year it's been putting a puzzle together with no pictures or corners. That being said, we're one of the lucky ones because I feel so bad for anybody in the restaurant business. It's been brutal for everybody."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 2, 2020.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press