Mark Casse-trained horse Soup and Sandwich faces major test in Grade 1 Florida Derby

·4 min read

Trainer Mark Casse is making a very bold ask of Soup and Sandwich.

The unbeaten American-bred grey colt will chase a third consecutive victory Saturday in the Grade 1 Florida Derby over 1 1/8 miles at Gulfstream Park. An anticipated 11-horse field is expected to include Greatest Honour, which is regarded as one of the favourites for the Kentucky Derby on May 1.

"Hey, look, it's called Derby fever and it's something that's contagious and you get it," Casse said Tuesday during a National Thoroughbred Racing Association conference call. "I feel like now is the time to give him a try and if it doesn't work we'll look elsewhere."

The Florida Derby will be a stern test for Soup and Sandwich, whose last win came in February in a two-turn allowance race at Tampa Bay Downs versus two other horses. Soup and Sandwich's first career victory was Jan. 28 in a maiden sprint at Gulfstream.

"Though it was a small field, he did prove he could run two turns," Casse said. "The other thing was he showed he could shut off and wait.

"Antonio (winning jockey Antonio Gallardo) was extremely impressed with him. He's a veteran rider and I've never heard him so excited about a horse. And (Soup and Sandwich) ran fast, he ran 4/5ths off the track record even in the three-horse field with a slow pace."

Johnny Valazquez, a three-time Kentucky Derby winner and five-time Woodbine Mile champion jockey, will ride Soup and Sandwich on Saturday. Velazquez has also won the Florida Derby on five occasions.

The race draw will be held Wednesday and Casse, 11 times Canada's top trainer, said Soup and Sandwich's post position will be crucial.

"Especially at Gulfstream, the post is going to be very important and a clean break is also going to be important," Casse said. "If he breaks well, Johnny is an aggressive rider and he's going to have him close to the pace.

"This horse does have some speed so my hope is (for) a clean break and we can have a stalking position. We're not going to be very far out of it, at least not if things go as planned."

Casse has a preference regarding where Soup and Sandwich lines up in the starter's gate.

"In mid-pack, probably like everybody else," he said. "The closer we draw inside the more important the break is.

"Outside is going to be extremely tough for anybody because even if you break well you're going to have to use a lot of your horse to get some positioning. I'd like to see him (post) five or six but that being said, if my luck in the draw goes anywhere, we'll probably be on the outside so we'll see."

Despite his limited racing resume, it seems Soup and Sandwich is generating some pre-race buzz this week. Casse, for one, isn't surprised.

"He's two for two, he's run fast and he's training extremely well right now," he said. "Everybody likes the unknown and there's some unknown here with him.

"So, yeah, I'm glad to hear there's buzz. I know there's buzz in my camp so we'll see. Hopefully we live up to the buzz."

Also in Casse's stable is Helium, another Kentucky Derby hopeful. Helium has three wins from three career starts, the last being the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby on March 6.

Helium's first two victories came last year at Toronto's Woodbine Racetrack.

"I'm extremely excited about Helium," Casse said. "To me, thinking back over my 40 years of training horses, I don't know if there's ever been a horse that won so impressively (at Tampa Bay Derby) and overcame so much.

"I'll be the first to tell you I don't know if the Tampa Bay Derby was the strongest field but it was a good field. Here's a horse that had never run on dirt, hadn't run in 4 1/2 months and never had run around two turns and so you add all of those things up, any kind of good race would've been a big positive He overcame so much . . . that performance just amazes me."

Helium is already safely in the Derby field and Casse won't run him before May 1.

"I'm not concerned at all about the two months between races or going a 1 1/4 miles," Casse said. "He's an amazing horse and if he can move forward again he's going to surprise everybody how good he runs."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 23, 2021.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press