THE ROAD TO THE DERBY ALWAYS PASSES THROUGH OCALA
Currently there are at least seventeen serious Kentucky Derby contenders with connections to Ocala, the horse capital of the world. Ocala, Marion County provides green pastures, gorgeous oak shade trees, great soil and what appears to be an ideal place for horses to train during the normally cold months of the year. However, all good horsemen know that it takes more than green pastures and good weather for a horse to make it into the starting gate at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. In the humble words of Ocala Horseman, J.B. McKathan, “Anyone could have trained Pharoah, even a monkey could have done it.” Or his brother Kevin McKathan who said, “We just didn’t screw Pharoah up, that’s all.” I admire the humility of the brothers, yet I know, as a horse person myself that there is much more to it then they give themselves credit for.
Training horses for the McKathans and their barn manager Chris Alexander is second nature and goes back generations in the McKathan family. American Pharoah started his training with the McKathan brothers and became the first horse to win the Triple Crown in thirty-seven years, finishing his career wearing the purple and yellow flowers of the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The McKathan brothers training team definitely contributed to American Pharoah’s successful racing career. This year another McKathan Brothers graduate is on the forefront of the Derby, and his name is Gormley. He will enter the starting gate for the 143rd Run for the Roses with Victor Espinoza aboard, but Gormley is only one of the many Ocala graduates this year.
All eyes are on Brad Grady’s Girvin, even with a healing quarter crack, which may hinder his start in the Derby. Girvin started his training at Grand Oaks Reddick with Ocala based trainers, Bobby Dodd and Mary Ellen Coenen. They were also the first trainers to saddle and train Irap, who is another popular Derby contender this year. Having two of the favorites in this year’s Derby that were both trained in Ocala would be enough of an accomplishment for most, but Ocala trainers have proven themselves again by almost filling the Derby starting gates.
But that’s not all. Ocala based Canadian Hall of Famer Mark Casse and his son Norman have brought Classic Empire through some trials and he is proving to be a formidable force in the Derby and could easily be in the winner’s circle on May 6th. If there’s a trainer who really deserves to win the Kentucky Derby, it’s Mark Casse. His ethical standards, his accomplishments and all that he and his family has contributed to the sport of horse racing puts him on a horse racing pedestal for me. His father, the older Norman Casse, put Ocala on the map as far as a thoroughbred epicenter.
If I gave all the details of each Ocala connection to the Derby this year, this would a very long editorial, but I still want to mention some of the others. Crupi’s New Castle Farm has a lot to be proud of this year with both Always Dreaming and Untrapped and Stonestreet Farm in Ocala have three graduates for Calumet Farm in the Derby starting gate this year, Hence, Sonneteer, and the feel-good story of the one-eyed miracle horse Patch. Although Patch has a great story and a one-eyed horse winning the Derby would be special, the stories behind Gunnevera are my favourites. Gunnevera saw his first days under saddle with the Venezuelan Julio Rada father and son training team based at Classic mile in Ocala. Julio Rada junior, who was Gunnevera’s assistant trainer in Ocala, trains from his wheelchair, never allowing his disability to stop him from being at OBS every day of the sale, being at the farm and around the horses. With a discerning eye for horses, Julio has become very successful in the thoroughbred business. Gunnevera’s current racetrack trainer is Antonio Sano and his son Alessandro, who are also from Venezuela. The Venezuelan people are with much turmoil in their country at the moment. During their life there, Antonio Sano was kidnapped and held for a $300,000 ransom. That amount of money was impossible for his family to raise alone, so his family, friends and clients all banded together and were able to buy his freedom back. Antonio knew it was time to bring his family to the United States to live in a safer place. The move to the States for the Sanos has proved to be a very good move, not only for a better way of life and for their safety, but they now also have their first Derby horse in the starting gate this Saturday and that is the icing on the cake of a great story.
Every year, Ocala has so many connections to the horses in the Derby. I can’t forget to mention Lynwood Stables, who started Battle of Midway and Lambholm Farm South should be very proud of their graduate McCraken. Abracadabra Farm were the first to saddle J Boys Echo and Nick and Jackie de Meric gave Practical Joke and Malagacy a perfect start also. Malagacy will not run in the Derby, but he did qualify. Fast and Accurate was broken and trained by Ciaran Dunne at Wavertree Stables in Ocala, and also trained at Woodford Thoroughbreds in Reddick. State of Honor was started by Mark Casse in Ocala, Untrapped is a Crupi’s New Castle Farm graduate and Tapwrit, owned in part by Bridlewood Farm, was started there at their farm in northwest Ocala.
Is it possible that this is all coincidence, and can only be attributed to Ocala’s ideal climate during the winter, or is it that Ocala, Marion County is home to some of the best horsemen in the world? I believe it is the latter, I believe that is takes much more than a monkey, I believe it takes a village. That village consists of starting trainers with an eye for every small detail, grooms with a genuine love of the horse, exercise riders with just the right touch and a finishing trainer who can condition the horse to be all that it can be. Seven of the last fourteen Derby winners started training in Ocala, Marion County. Hats off to the ‘Horse Capital of the World’ and to the trainers who call Ocala home. They make us all proud. Whether a horse connected to Ocala or not stands in the Winner’s Circle this year doesn’t really matter. The accomplishment is making it into the top twenty horses in the country by the first Saturday in May. Ocala trainers accomplish that every year, year after year. This Saturday, I will share in the hopes, the dreams, the anticipation, the excitement and the fears of all those connected to the most famous race in America and the most exciting two minutes in sports. More than beautiful hats and mint juleps, the Derby holds the hopes of many trainers and owners. I look forward to seeing the grins, the selfies, the tweets and the facebook posts from the Ocala connections and I will proudly share and retweet all of it, bringing more fame to the place I now call home, Ocala, Marion County, Florida, the Horse Capital of the World, where some of the best horsemen in the world will begin to train next year’s potential Derby contenders.
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