Jim Mulvihill: Thank you to all of you members of the media for joining us today. The 140th Kentucky Derby is now only 25 days away, yet our field is still a long way from set. This Saturday we’ve got the final two 170-point prep races in the Road to the Kentucky Derby Championship Series. Those are the Toyota Blue Grass from Keeneland and the Arkansas Derby from Oaklawn Park. Both races are worth 100 points to the winners, 40 to second, 20 to third, 10 to fourth. Every one of these 340 points up for grabs this weekend matters immensely for those looking to make the 20-horse Derby field. A top two finish in either of these stakes essentially guarantees a spot in the Derby, but those third and fourth place points will impact chances for every horse outside of the current top 20 who have previously earned points and is known by Churchill officials to still have an interest in running. Of the 45 horses that have points and are still hoping to make the Derby starting gate, 12 of them are running this Saturday; eight in the Blue Grass, four in the Arkansas Derby.
Let’s not forget, though, that these races aren’t all about qualifying for the Derby. These are rich and prestigious races in their own right. Both are Grade 1 events. The Blue Grass is worth $750,000, and the Arkansas Derby is worth a million. The Blue Grass will be featured on the next installment of the “Jockey Club Tour on FOX”. That’s part of a 90-minute show Saturday from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Eastern on FOX Sports 1.
Also note that the Horse Racing Radio Network is all over the stakes action at Keeneland this weekend. Friday they’ve got live coverage of the Maker’s 46 Mile. That’s with the 2014 debut of two-time defending Horse of the Year, Wise Dan, from 5 to 5:30 p.m. Then on Saturday, HRRN will be on for at least three hours, promising to stay on as long as it takes to run the Arkansas Derby, as well as four Keeneland stakes; the Blue Grass, the Jenny Wiley, the Madison, and the Commonwealth.
Now, just as a reminder, there’s plenty of other important stakes action to pay attention to in the next few days. Oaklawn’s closing weekend includes the Grade 1 Apple Blossom on Friday. They’ll have top distaffers like Close Hatches and On Fire Baby. Then on Saturday, last year’s three year old champion, Will Take Charge, leads the field for the Oaklawn Handicap. That’s on the Arkansas Derby undercard. Then at Keeneland on Sunday, the Beaumont is the last race for three year old fillies in the Road to the Kentucky Oaks series.
But for now, we’re focused on the Derby trail. Later in this call we’re going to talk to Billy Gowan. He’s the trainer of Ride On Curlin in the Arkansas Derby, and also Katerina Vassilieva, trainer of Big Bazinga, in the Blue Grass.
But first, let’s talk to Mark Casse. He’s got contenders in both of those stakes races. I’ll keep the introduction short. Mark was kind enough to join us a few weeks ago to talk about his three year olds, so if you need more background on him, just refer to our March 4th transcript. Since our last time speaking with Mark, Conquest Titan ran a solid fourth in the Tampa Bay Derby. He’s got nine points on the Derby Leaderboard. Then about two and a half weeks ago, Coastline was part of the wild finish in the Spiral finishing a head back in third there, and Coastline has 13 points in the Road to the Derby standings.
Mark, you’re on with Jim Mulvihill in New York. Thanks for being here.
Mark Casse: Thanks for having me, Jim.
Jim Mulvihill: Of course, it’s our pleasure. Let’s start with Conquest Titan. Last month when you were on you told us how taking him back and letting him make one run had really made a big difference with him, but then in the Tampa Bay Derby the winner gets away on an uncontested lead, and nobody really makes up any significant ground behind him. Did he get a chance to run his race that day, and how did you assess the Tampa Bay Derby?
Mark Casse: Well, I mean I was disappointed, Jim, in his performance, but I came away from there scratching my head and not really sure what to make of it. I keep looking at horses that he’s ran against that have come back and ran so well, so I really don’t know what to tell you. I’m just going to throw it out and go on to the next one. So he’s trained really well. He just got on a plane about 30—about 45 minutes ago with my son Norman, and they’re on their way to Arkansas.
Jim Mulvihill: Well, and you must’ve been encouraged by the work yesterday. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Mark Casse: He worked extremely well. I was very pleased. You know, he loves Churchill Downs, and so what we decided to go ahead and get him on up to Churchill and let him train there. It’s a really very short flight from Louisville it’s only a 45-minute flight, where if we’d flown him out of South Florida he was going to have to go and get on a plane and fly to Louisville, sit and wait, and then fly. So we just brought him up, let him train, and, you know, I actually—he actually went just a little faster. I had asked the rider I wanted him going about 48, and he went 47.2 I believe, but just did a galloping. And like I said, he loves Churchill Downs. We’ve just got to try to get there.
Jim Mulvihill: Right, right. You made a rider change for Saturday; Calvin Borel is going to get on. Why is Calvin a good fit for this horse?
Mark Casse: Well, I think if you watch, you know, I think that Calvin, he’s really good at horses that come from way out of it, and, you know, that—we’re going to—I thought in the Tampa Bay Derby maybe we made a middle move a little bit and got stopped a little bit and we were down on the rail, and he just didn’t run. I’m hoping that was what it is, but we’re going to—I’m not going to tell you we won’t come up the rail, because Calvin likes to come up the rail, but I’m hoping for us to be, you know, back a ways and make one big run, and hopefully that’ll be the answer.
Jim Mulvihill: All right, and then also on Saturday you’ve got Coastline in the Blue Grass. You know, his run in the Spiral was good enough to win. You know, if you run that race several times you would think Coastline would’ve pulled out that win with the right trip, but on that day he was a head short; it was kind of a wild finish. But you must’ve been pleased with the effort nonetheless.
Mark Casse: You know, I was very pleased. Coastline is another horse that if you look at Churchill form is very good, so I’ve always been saying we just need to get to Churchill. I took him to Arkansas and he just didn’t get over that track as well as we had hoped, and he, you know, he ran okay, but he didn’t run great, and so I just thought, well we’ve got to make a change. His race at Keeneland last year when he ran over the synthetic was really a super race, and that’s why I went to the Spiral. And I thought that race was good. I have to tell you, I think he’s a better horse now than he was a couple weeks ago. I’ve been really pleased with the way he’s trained. He worked super the other day, and more importantly, he trained as good as a horse can train this morning, and he likes—he really likes Keeneland’s racetrack. So we just hope for a clean trip and let the best horse win.
Jim Mulvihill: Now you also mentioned that he likes the Churchill racetrack, and he is a stakes winner there. Would you be running back in this race if you didn’t know that he loved Churchill so much, or how much does that play in the decision to carry on the Derby Trail with him?
Mark Casse: Well, I mean it is the Derby Trail, but there is $750,000 up for grabs.
Along with, you know, without looking at the Derby. My thought was, and Mr. Oxley and I had a conversation after the Spiral and said, let’s go to Keeneland and see how things go. We could run in the Blue Grass or go to the Lexington or just wait and go in the Derby Trial. I think he deserves—I think he, you know, I think he has a good shot to win the Blue Grass. It’s a lot of money, and, you know, if he runs well and comes out of it good, you still may see us on Derby day.
Jim Mulvihill: All right, well lots to ask about these two very interesting horses. Let’s kick it back to Michelle and see what the media has to ask.
Jennie Rees: Obviously you’ve been following Churchill Downs for decades now and you mentioned that both of your horses really like Churchill, and we know a lot of times impressive performances in these preps don’t translate. What advice do you have for handicappers looking at—what they should be looking for in these prep races in trying to decide, okay, this is my Derby horse going forward?
Mark Casse: Well, you know, the first thing I think you want to look at a horse that’s pretty versatile, and so many times we see these horses win and they’re never challenged; they’re on the lead and just never have dealt with a 20-horse field, and I think that’s why a lot of times we’ve seen lots of Derbies won by horses that you would be surprised that would win the race. Then sometimes the—a lot of times the best horse doesn’t necessarily win the Derby because they get in traffic and they can’t handle that kind of stuff. Then of course we go to the Preakness and it’s a smaller field and a lot of times it’s a clearer trip. So right now to me if you said who the horse to beat is it’s definitely California Chrome. That being said, you know, he may be a great horse, but there’s a lot of things that could happen in a 20-horse field.
I mean looking at what just recently happened with the winner of the Wood Memorial, I think everything’s up in the air. I mean here’s a horse that had run two poor starts before and then he was super on Saturday. So I don’t know; I’m not the only one that’s scratching my head. But I would say that if you can try to find a horse, one, that does have a little speed most of the time, of course that’s not Conquest Titan, so that’s going against me, but has had enough racing that he has some experience and can overcome, you know, some adversities.
Jennie Rees: Well, in that regard, speaking of experience and overcoming adversity, can you just talk about what maybe Coastline got out of the stretch run of the Spiral?
Mark Casse: Well, my feeling was that Coastline didn’t get a whole lot out of his first two races in Arkansas, so I think maybe this last race will help him move forward. But, Coastline’s had enough experience and he’s had some traffic around him. Most of the time you’ll see, especially with my horses, I try to, in their earlier races, try to get them to rate, and get that type of experience instead of just going to the lead. Sometime you just can’t help it; they just are so fast and you just can’t rate them. But I do try to do that. I think Coastline’s got enough experience. He still has to prove that he can go that far. I’m not positive of that, but that’s why we have racing, and I’ll have more answers Saturday evening.
Danny Brewer: The bloodlines of Conquest Titan are very impressive. Do you put much stock in that kind of stuff?
Mark Casse: When I’m out buying horses, I’m always looking to try to buy Derby and Oaks type of horses, and for sure his pedigree is one of the things that enticed me about him. His pedigree says he should run all day, and I think he will, but you just never know until they do it.
Danny Brewer: Do you feel like he is moving forward right now?
Mark Casse: You know, I do. I kind of called an audible when I went to the Tampa Bay Derby, and I probably didn’t train him to Tampa Bay Derby exactly the way I wanted to. But I’ve trained him exactly the way I wanted to for the Arkansas Derby. So he’s as good as he can get; I just hope it’s good enough. You know, you just never know, and I’m not one to go out and make predictions, all I can tell you is that I feel that he’s at the top of his game and we’ll just have to figure out where that stacks up.
Danny Brewer: Calvin Borel, a nice piece to the puzzle, and maybe the missing piece that you’re looking for to get the light bulb to come on for Conquest Titan?
Mark Casse: You know, I love Shaun. He did a good job with the horse. In my eyes, he’s not the perfect fit, you know, and I just think Calvin is, and I hope I’m right.
Beverley Smith: I’m just kind of wondering—I’m wondering if you think that it’s intriguing with all these horses coming up for the Derby so many of them don’t race very far off the pace and here you’ve got one that comes out of it, and I’m wondering if you’re intrigued by that or what made you decide to change his racing tactics?
Mark Casse: Well, yes it’s intriguing, and it gives me a lot of hope that we could have a really fast pace, and I mean that’s what we’re looking for. What made me change his style was I’ve always thought he was really talented, and horses are a big puzzle and you’re out here constantly changing the pieces and trying to see what works and I just felt like after his poor performance in the Breeders’ Cup that we had to make a drastic change. I told the owners, Ernie and Dory, I said, look, I’m just going to try something new; it may or may not work. But we had tried it with him in the morning and he had really trained well doing it that way. He has a quick turn of foot —if you sit and sit and sit, and when you ask him to go he’ll take off, and we just tried to try to use it that way and it worked. So we’re going to dance with the one who brought us. Hopefully we’ll continue to dance.
Beverley Smith: What did you like about him when you saw him when you bought him?
Mark Casse: Well, you know, Beverly, I buy a lot of horses at the two year old sales, and I’m really critical on pedigrees. I’m 53 years old. I’ve been reading pedigrees with my father since I was about 10, so I know a lot about pedigrees. The thing that intrigued me about this horse was he worked extremely fast, and looking at his pedigree, I didn’t think he should. I thought, it was amazing that he could work so fast. A lot of these horses that work fast at the sale are bred to work fast. This horse wasn’t bred to work fast. He has a beautiful way of going, and he just skims the ground when he runs, and that’s what I liked about him. I’ve had some luck with Birdstones. You know, Birdstone’s proven that he can get a good horse, and that’s always important to me. I have an old saying, you have to position yourself or luck can run over you. I see so many people to me making mistakes buying horses by sires and mares that have no chance of ever being successful, and I try to stay away from that. So I’m a big pedigree guy.
Ed Zieralski: I was wondering, you talked a little bit earlier about California Chrome, and not to diss your horses at all, but you made an intriguing statement that he’s the horse to beat right now. Have you had a chance to watch him, and what makes him in that elite category right now as the horse to beat in your opinion?
Mark Casse: I watched him run the other day, and I thought, well, we’ll see because they put him in a little tight spot for a minute and it didn’t seem to bother him. They were running him along at a pretty good click, and it looked like the rider moved his hands and he just accelerated, and at that point in time I became a believer. He’s impressive to me.
Ed Zieralski: Got you. Mark, you know, you brought Delegation out to Del Mar last year and if my memory serves, I wanted to look it up, but I think he was fifth or sixth just in the Classic?
Mark Casse: Correct.
Ed Zieralski: Are you considering coming to Del Mar with a bigger string next year?
Mark Casse: That’s the plan. I’ve been in communications with Del Mar. I’ve cleared it with my owners and the plan is currently to bring probably between 30 and 40 horses to Del Mar, and then probably stay there maybe for who knows how long; a long time.
Ed Zieralski: Okay. Your jockey that rides your first string, Luis Contreras, will he be riding for you out there—out here in Del Mar?
Mark Casse: No, I don’t think so. You know, Luis does really well at Woodbine. It would be kind of crazy for him to come out there. I don’t know who. Somebody may come with me. I mean there’s plenty of good riders in California. I don’t think I really have to bring anybody. You know, I like—Mike Smith and we go back probably 25 or 30 years, and so there are a lot of good riders. We’ll just have to wait and see. So far we’ve been very lucky recently at Keeneland with Stewart Elliott, and, you know, we’ll just have to see how things are going. I like the way he rides, and him and I have a good relationship, but we may or may not bring somebody. That just remains to be seen. But like I said, I’m not concerned. There’s a lot of good riders in California.
Rob Longley: Yes, it’s been awhile. Listen, this is sort of a bit of an offbeat question, Mark, but, you know, every year now we’re seeing more and more young colts of yours having an impact on the Triple Crown Trail. I wonder what kind of reaction you had from your fellow American horsemen back when you first made the move to come up to Woodbine? And related to that, what has worked for you there in terms of preparing and developing young horses there?
Mark Casse: Well, Rob, you know, I’m never afraid to say what I feel and come out, and I’ve said all along that there isn’t a better training facility and racing facility anywhere in North America than Woodbine, and Woodbine plays a big part in our success. They have one of the best racetracks in North America. They have probably the best turf course in North America. So it’s a great place to train, it’s a great place to get horses ready, and it’s definitely added to our success.
There’s been a lot going on, and I’m not going to get into it right now, but I’m not a real happy camper about them taking out the synthetic track—at Keeneland, and I was very disappointed to read about it at Del Mar, because nobody’s trained as many horses as I’ve trained over the synthetic. We train on it year round in Florida, and, of course, then we race on it at Woodbine, and it’s just superior to anything else. They may be quite equal on a normal day, but when the weather’s bad, they’re great. It’s funny because I know that they’ve been getting a lot of rain today in Toronto and last night and we were training away today at Woodbine. The same thing happened here at Keeneland, the other day we had eight hours of rain and I breezed Coastline that morning. If it was a dirt racetrack, we’d be lucky if we trained in two days. I’m concerned because the statistics show that what’s best for the horses is the synthetic track; over five years of records there’s a significant difference, and, you know, the horse should always be first.
Rob Longley: When you first made the move to Canada, Mark, did you get some sort of negative reaction from people down there, or was it sort of like people kind of think you may be out of your mind moving up to Canada?
Mark Casse: No, I don’t think so. I can tell you, though, over the years, Woodbine’s definitely gotten a lot more respect, and I mean I think the horses have come out of there and done really well. But every now and then I’ll have somebody say, well you do really well in Canada. Why don’t you come out of there? My answer is why don’t you come to Canada? I mean, you know, it’s a great place to race, and you’d have to pull me out of there to do it. Really the only reason and I know Rob said, you know, we’re expanding and I owe a lot of it to Woodbine, just what you said, you know. I’ve been able to develop some good horses over the years. A lot of it had to do with Woodbine, and now it’s given me the opportunity to get bigger and better owners, and now we’ve gotten a lot more powerful stable and now we can go and compete anywhere that we need to.
Ron Gierkink: . Regarding Delegation, is aiming for the stake at Woodbine on Sunday, and how is he doing?
Mark Casse: He is, Ron. He is. He got hurt in his last start up at Woodbine last year, and he had a minor operation, and he’s come back and he’s training great. You know, three quarters is not really his best game, but he’s training really well, so he is on target for this weekend.
Jim Mulvihill: All right, Mark, just one final question for you. You’ve gotten off to a great start at Keeneland; four wins from 13 starters, 10 of those in the money. Are you a trainer who traditionally gets streaky? I mean does this say anything about the rest of your barn and what’s coming up?
Mark Casse: I hope so. I hope so. We send down probably 80% of our horses over the winter, and so we crank them back up and get them ready, and that’s what’s you’re kind of seeing right now. We’ve got a lot of horses we gave time off, and they’re coming back, and, you know, so far so good. I think it should continue, but in this game you never know from one minute to the next. So I keep knocking on wood and just smiling as long as it continues.
You know, I can tell you this, somebody was asking today, do we have enough horses to keep our streak— to possibly be the leading trainer at Keeneland, and I think we do. We’re definitely going to need some luck but we have a lot of horses to run and hopefully they’ll continue to run well. I can tell you I don’t know of a much bigger honor than if we were able to be the leading trainer at Keeneland it would mean a lot to me. It’s really where I had my first winner 30—well, I was 18, so 35 years ago. It would mean a lot to me, and I can tell you it would mean a lot to my father, because that’s where he first got the love of horse racing was at Keeneland. His father took him there, and so it would mean a lot. (Inaudible) he’s my biggest fan, and if we could do that it would mean a lot to me and to him.
Jim Mulvihill: Well, we will hope that your success this past weekend foreshadows something good to come for the rest of the meet and that the winners keep on rolling on. So we wish you luck on Saturday and thanks for joining us today, Mark.
Mark Casse: Okay. Everybody have a great day and thanks for having me.
Jim Mulvihill: Anytime. Mark Casse, he’s been kind enough to come on twice in the last couple months and been great both times. So, Mark Casse, the trainer of Conquest Titan and Coastline.
Now let’s move on to our next guest, and that is Billy Gowan, the trainer of Ride On Curlin, who is in the Arkansas Derby on Saturday. Gowan is a Louisville native. He helped pick out Ride On Curlin as a yearling at Keeneland’s September sale, where owner Dan Dougherty purchased him for $25,000. The son of Curlin set a track record at Ellis when breaking his maiden last summer. He was third to Havana in the Grade 1 Champagne at Belmont, and this winter he went to Oaklawn and won an allowance before finishing third in both the Southwest and the Rebel. Ride On Curlin currently sits in 23rd place on the Derby Leaderboard with 15 points.
Bronco Billy, thanks for joining us. It’s Jim Mulvihill in New York.
Billy Gowan: Thanks for having me.
Jim Mulvihill: There isn’t a lot of information out there on you biographically. I saw a great article out there that Jennie Rees wrote a couple of months ago, but not much beyond that. So if you would, can you just take us through your training career, and, you know, from the beginning tell us all how you got to this point.
Billy Gowan: Well, I’ve been training since 1994 I took out my first trainer’s license, and started with a couple claiming horses and pretty much is what I’ve had all along. You know, there haven’t been too many yearlings, mostly claiming horses, and so we tried to upgrade our stock a little bit and started buying some yearlings, and so far it’s paid off, especially with this one.
Jim Mulvihill: As far as the path that brought you to being a trainer in the first place, what’s your background in racing?
Billy Gowan: Well, my father was a veterinarian. We grew up on a farm in Louisiana; 200 acres and we had horses and cattle. My Dad started buying a few thoroughbreds and racing them at Louisiana Downs, and that’s kind of how I first got in racing. After high school I graduated and I went to Louisiana Tech and graduated in the Equine Program over there. After that we had to do a three-month internship —when I graduated from college, and so I did my internship with Jack Van Berg and wound up staying with him about four and a half years, so that’s kind of how I got started in the business.
Jim Mulvihill: So many trainers came up under Jack. What was that like working for Jack and what did you learn from him?
Billy Gowan: Well, the main thing I learned from Jack was just checking the horse’s legs. You know, Jack would work on a horse all day, just sweating them, icing them; just mainly working on their legs and making them feel good. Jack was probably the best leg man I’ve ever been around in my life. He just taught me a lot about how to look at a horse and how to watch a horse, and a lot about legs. My dad taught me a lot about lameness, but Jack, he’s as good as any vet there was, too. So that’s mainly what I learned from Jack is how to take care of a horse’s legs, and watching your horse and seeing what your horse is telling you.
Jim Mulvihill: Let me ask you, because I know it’s going to come up. How did you get the nickname Bronco?
Billy Gowan: Well, the starter at Churchill Downs, Tommy Wagner (ph), gave me that name. I was working a horse out of the gate one day and he started bucking as soon as he left the gate, and I stayed on him and rode him on out, and so he started calling me Bronco Billy and it kind of stuck. I guess Tommy Wagner was the one who gave me that name.
Jim Mulvihill: Excellent. Well, now let’s talk about the horse. Ride On Curlin, he was right there in that final sixteenth of the Rebel when the other three horses outside of him were all banging into each other. It was a pretty game effort. What did you think of that race, and has he been improving all winter there in Hot Springs?
Billy Gowan: Well, he has been improving. I first got to Hot Springs, as you mentioned, I ran him in an allowance race going short. I’d had the horse turned out in November and brought him back in, and then we ran him short one time just because of (inaudible) wasn’t really going to the—they had the Smarty Jones and he wasn’t quite fit enough to go a mile. Then going into the Southwest, we missed almost two weeks of training where he was in the barn and didn’t even get to go to the racetrack, so I knew he would come up a little short in the Southwest, and he, you know, he got beat. He was up there close, but they had a wide trip and then he was up close, and kind of faded in the stretch and got beat by 10 lengths that day. I knew he would improve off that if I could get some training in him, which we did. We didn’t miss any training from the Southwest to the Rebel, and he gets beat, you know, a length—less than a length for everything that day. So he moved forward and I think he came out of the Rebel perfect. He never missed a note, never missed a day of training, so I think he should move forward off the Rebel into the Arkansas Derby.
Danny Brewer: This horse, Ride On Curlin, eight starts, seven times he’s been in the top three. Do you feel like he’s really got a nose for the wire?
Billy Gowan: Well, I know one thing, he likes to fight. You know, he loves to run. If we could just get just a little bit better trip with him I think we’ll get the money. But he always shows up every race and he’s just that kind of horse. He’s always there for you.
Danny Brewer: The jockey, is Desormeaux going to be on him for the Arkansas Derby?
Billy Gowan: No, Jon Court’s going to run in the Arkansas Derby.
Danny Brewer: What led to that—because I know Jon’s really good at Arkansas at Oaklawn? Did that play a factor in deciding to put Jon Court on him?
Billy Gowan: Yeah, it had a lot to do with it. You know, he’s won the Arkansas Derby, I don’t know, the last two out of four years I think it is, and we just thought we’d try a little something different. Jon’s ridden for me before, and nothing against Kent, Kent did a good job, but Jon’s had a lot of success here and in the Arkansas Derby, so that was one of the reasons we decided to go with Jon for this race.
Danny Brewer: Do you think that Ride On Curlin is Kentucky Derby bound? I mean I know obviously things have to go well at Arkansas, but is he ready to run beneath those twin spires, do you feel like?
Billy Gowan: I really believe he’ll run in the Kentucky Derby. I really do. I think if we can lay off the pace just a little bit and have just a little bit different running style where we can run at them at the end I think that will help him a bunch. And I really do; I think he can go a mile and an eighth and a mile and a quarter.
Jennie Rees: Back in 2009, I mean you watch these Derbies every year, and Chip Woolley came in, he had never been in a graded stakes before, and he wins the Kentucky Derby. Did you find yourself thinking, you know, if that can happen, I could win the Kentucky Derby some day?
Billy Gowan: Well, yes.
Jennie Rees: Or do you think that he used up all the good luck for the little guy?
Billy Gowan: Well, I think he had a good horse that day and it helped him. I think I’ve got a good horse, so I’ll see why I can’t do it. I think that you just have to have the horse.
Jennie Rees: It’s such a numbers game, and you’re going up with Pletcher who could have who knows how many horses in the Derby. Just being analytical about it and pragmatic, what’s the chance of somebody that carries off in between four and eight horses and stuff of getting to the Derby with the right horse, and what does it mean to you when you maybe come up with that horse?
Billy Gowan: Well, it means a lot. I know it’s a numbers game and those guys have a lot of horses that they get to the Derby every year, but, I think I’ve got the horse that can get to the Derby and go on past that, too. I think if you have a horse, I think anybody can get there if they have the right horse; a little bit of horsemanship and a common sense.
Jennie Rees: But Dan, the owner, famously got a lot—some offers after he set the track record when he won his maiden at Ellis. What about I mean this year? Has he still been getting offers or are people saying, look, this guy’s, you know, not selling, or how is that shaking out?
Billy Gowan: Yes, I think he got called (ph) off the Rebel, and I think they’ve figured out that he doesn’t want to sell, so we’re going to see how far he’ll take us. We made it this far or this deep, we might as well see.
Jennie Rees: You’re going to be taking on a lot of the same cast as in the Rebel. You know, what do you make of Tapiture? I mean he had trouble himself in that race and stuff, and maybe Strong Mandate. So that’s the first part of the question. The second is Bayern , the new horse that’ll be showing up for Baffert, any thoughts on him?
Billy Gowan: Well, he sure looks like a nice horse. You know, he broke his maiden easy and won an allowance race by 15. But what I like about my horse, the main thing is that my horse has had more starts than any horse in the field, so I’ve got a lot of experience and I think that’s going to help me more than anything. Tapiture is a nice horse, but, we’ve been right there within a length of him, so I think we can run with anybody.
Jim Mulvihill: Billy, I just wanted to ask about the track in the Rebel. You know, looking at it on paper with such a big improvement someone might think, oh, the wet track might’ve moved him up. Do you think that benefitted Ride On Curlin, or he just came around at the—he’s coming around at the right time now and it wouldn’t have mattered anyway?
Billy Gowan: Well, I think the horse will run over any kind of racetrack. What benefitted him the most is being able to not miss any days of training. I knew he’d be a lot fitter going into the Rebel than he was the Southwest. I knew that horse would get tired in the Southwest, and I called my owner before he even came to Hot Springs and told him that I don’t expect this horse to win today in the Southwest and I think he’ll get just a little bit tired because we missed training. I knew he would be fitter going into the Rebel. So I don’t think it had anything to do with the track surface. He’s run on, you know, wet before—or he’s run on fast tracks and run right there with some of the best up in New York, so the track surface I don’t think it had anything to do with the way he improved. It was all about fitness.
Jim Mulvihill: Excellent. Well, it’s a pretty exciting story and I know we all wish you luck on Saturday. Hoping for a good effort out of Ride On Curlin.
Billy Gowan: Well, I appreciate it. I hope we make it to the Derby.
Jim Mulvihill: Hopefully we’ll see you there, Billy.
Billy Gowan: All right, thank you.
Jim Mulvihill: All right. Thanks to Billy Gowan, the trainer of Ride On Curlin.
We’ve got one more guest today. Let’s move on to Katerina Vassilieva. She’s the trainer of Big Bazinga, who is in the Blue Grass. Vassilieva moved to Canada from Russia with her family at the age of seven. Once her mom refused to get her figure skating lessons they compromised with riding lessons instead, and that was the birth of a horse lover. While in college she worked as an exercise rider for Reade Baker, who also has a horse in the Blue Grass incidentally, and then took a job as Mike Pino’s assistant. She went out on her own in 2011. Now at age 31, Vassilieva trains a string of about 15 horses based at Woodbine most of the year and Palm Meadows in the winter. Big Bazinga, named of course for the catch phrase of the “Big Bang Theory’s” uber nerd Sheldon Cooper, hasn’t won since his debut at Woodbine in September, but he’s graded stakes placed and comes into the Blue Grass off a solid fifth in the Spiral. He’s got four points on the Derby Leaderboard.
Kat, you’re on with Jim Mulvihill in New York. Thanks for being here.
Katerina Vassilieva: Thanks for having me on. It’s a pleasure.
Jim Mulvihill: Excellent. Well, just tell us what you thought of your gelding’s effort in the Spiral? What did he learn that day and what were your impressions of that race?
Katerina Vassilieva: I thought he put in a great effort. We were expecting him to run well because we know he loves the Polytrack. He broke his maiden on it and he was second in the Grade 2 at Woodbine, as you mentioned, so we were waiting for a good effort and he gave us one, and we were really pleased with him that day. We really liked the way that he ran; the way that he was able to stay close to the pace that day but stay relaxed and make a late run at the end. We thought he did a great job that day.
Jim Mulvihill: You know, watching the replay today it did look like coming into the stretch that Luis tried to take him inside and the horse wasn’t having it. Was there something he wasn’t liking there turning for home?
Katerina Vassilieva: I think he got impeded a little bit. There was a little bit of traffic trouble down the stretch as well, and maybe he was looking at something a little bit because he was—he did have to ask him to change leads to the outside lead coming down the lane. So I’m not sure what that was all about, but once he got that lead and he started running down the lane he really gave his best effort, so.
Jim Mulvihill: Then there was a nice work Sunday over the Keeneland surface with Brian Hernandez. Just tell us what you saw in that work.
Katerina Vassilieva: Yes, the work was really nice. I told Brian to just have a good, steady maintenance work; not to really have to ask him for any of it along the way. He’s a generally good work horse, and he was going to take him there himself. So I just said do a nice easy work; finish up stronger the last part and have a nice strong gallop out, which he did. He galloped out in a minute and four fifths that day, so I was really pleased.
Jim Mulvihill: You know, if you hit the board—if you hit the board this weekend you’ve got a good chance to go to the Derby. We mentioned you’ve only been on your own since 2011. What would it be like being—as far as trainers go relatively new—what would it be like taking a horse to the Derby?
Katerina Vassilieva: It would be a dream come true and absolutely amazing. It would probably make my entire career. I would be so grateful. And as well, it would make my owners absolutely happy, which is always my goal. The owner, Derby Dreamers Racing Stable, as you can tell that’s his dream as well. He’s been trying for something like 20 years to get a Derby horse, and this is the closest that he’s come, so it would be—it would just be amazing for both of us to get there.
Jim Mulvihill: Can you tell us about the process of how this horse came to you, and, you know, I know that your owner has been trying to end up with a Derby horse for a while, but how did he pick this one out and then your impressions when Big Bazinga finally came to you?
Katerina Vassilieva: Well, every year the owner he goes and he shops for two year olds at the Keeneland sale, you know, looking for a colt or gelding; a two-turn horse with stamina and pedigree that can take him to the Derby. I don’t usually—I’ve never accompanied him to the sale, so he goes completely by himself and picks them by himself without any help actually based on his intuition and just kind of the budget he’s looking to spend.
So I had never seen Big Bazinga until he entered my care from the training center after he was broke. I liked him. I mean he’s not an overly big or, you know, seeming horse, I didn’t really know what kind of a horse he was going to be until he ran. But all the signs were good. He was training really well and working really well, and, you know, beating some of the company in his works. So he had the right attitude and I could see he had some talent, but, you know, you never know how a horse is going to run until they actually make their first start. There’s so much to contend with that first time, and so we were really impressed with the effort that he put in the first time he ran.
Danny Brewer: What do you like most about Big Bazinga?
Katerina Vassilieva: I like the way he tries in all his races. He’s just a really determined hard trying horse. He always puts in a great effort for us. That would be my main thing.
Danny Brewer: You talked a little bit about his breeding, because obviously, you know, son of Bluegrass Cat and I know Maria’s Mon is his grandmamie and she obviously had a few—produced a few good colts. So you really like his bloodlines?
Katerina Vassilieva: Yes, I do. I think he’s bred to go long on both sides. He’s got the breeding for dirt obviously from his dad, and, well, the grass or synthetic breeding from his—more from his mom’s side. But essentially the stamina comes from both sides, so we know he could definitely get the distance, you know, for this particular race; for the Blue Grass and the Derby if we were lucky enough to go down that road.
Danny Brewer: What do you think about the synthetic, because I know he ran in the Spiral and now he’s going to run in the Blue Grass? Do you think that the synthetic surfaces can really help prepare him for the dirt at Churchill downs and a big run in the Derby?
Katerina Vassilieva: I don’t think they can hurt him. Certainly, you know, the angle we’re trying to take in earning our way to the Derby is just to put him on the surface that we know he really excels on. So this is synthetic, and turf is really the surface that we know he excels on.
Jim Mulvihill: All right, Kat, I just wanted to follow-up on taking this path on the synthetic tracks to perhaps the Kentucky Derby. I mean looking at those two starts on a traditional dirt surface; obviously not his best. But reading some of your comments after those races, it’s—to you is it decided yet that this horse won’t run on a traditional dirt surface?
Katerina Vassilieva: No. Like I said, he did have some excuses in both cases. You know, there was the long ship from Canada to the Delta Downs race. That was his first start on dirt, so he may have not been quite dirt fit at that point in his racing career. I wouldn’t throw out that race. I thought he actually made a really good effort in that race. He made a good run, he just got blocked, and kind of was down on the inside where we were warned is not a good place to be on that particular track.
Then his only other chance was the Holy Bull on the dirt, and he was just so dull that day. He wasn’t himself in the race, in the paddock, in the post parade. There was something physically off about him. So I don’t know that you could just say that he doesn’t like dirt from those two starts. Then after that, we just—we didn’t have any more chances to try the dirt, and we opted to go for the synthetics and the grass, like I said, because we know he excels on it. So I wouldn’t throw away the dirt races just yet. He’s always worked really brilliantly on the dirt, so it’s hard to say at this point.
Jim Mulvihill: Sure. Can you tell us more about just the horse’s personality? I know that you get on his back sometimes so you obviously know the horse very well. Just tell us more about what this horse is like around the barn.
Katerina Vassilieva: Yes, he’s got a lot of personality. He’s quite a ham. With a horse like Bazinga you’d expect him to have that sort of a personality, wouldn’t you? He loves people, he loves training, and he loves the attention he’s getting at the Blue Grass right now. He’s a really nice horse to be around in general; really nice to gallop. You know, he doesn’t have any strange quirks or anything like that on the track. He loves to train. He gets a little excited sometimes and jumps around, but all-in-all, he’s a good horse.
Jim Mulvihill: We can assume that your owner, Derby Dreamers, came up with this name?
Katerina Vassilieva: Yes. Yes, they’re big fans of “The Big Bang Theory”, so it’s where the name came from.
Jim Mulvihill: What does that say about them?
Katerina Vassilieva: They’re fun-loving people. They love their horses. They have fun with all the races. They never miss a race. They’re at every single one, you know, be it a claiming race or the Blue Grass. In fact, the day after Bazinga runs we have a filly running for maiden $20,000 at Woodbine, and they’re going to jump in their cars and drive to that race from Keeneland. So, yes, they’re just great people. I’m honored to have them with me.
Jim Mulvihill: Fantastic. Sounds like some great owners. Well, Kat, we appreciate you taking some time with us today and good luck with Big Bazinga on Saturday.
Katerina Vassilieva: Thanks a lot. I appreciate it.
Jim Mulvihill: All right, our thanks once again to Mark Casse and Bronco Billy Gowan, as well as Katerina Vassilieva. After Saturday, only one more Kentucky Derby prep race with points available. That’s the April 19 Lexington from Keeneland. We will not have a call next week leading up to that race, but as a reminder, please mark your calendars for April 22nd at 1 p.m. Eastern. That will be our big Kentucky Derby preview call.