Unbeaten Helium Lifts Casse’s Kentucky Derby Hopes With Sparkling Return At Tampa Bay

Almost half a century before he saddled Helium to win the 41st running of the Grade 2, $400,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby on Saturday, Mark Casse fell in love with the picturesque, rustic charm of Tampa Bay Downs.

The track set an all-sources handle record of $15,229,267 on the 12-race Festival Day 41 Presented by Lambholm South card, bettering the previous track mark of $14,859,633 on Tampa Bay Derby Day three years ago. Saturday’s total was also 15.77 percent above the 2010 Festival Day figure of $13,155,350.

With all those greenbacks circulating, both in purse money and wagering dollars, it might be hard for fans under 40 to understand Casse’s emotions watching Helium race to victory. But racing’s lure extends far beyond the possibility of big paydays.

“Tampa Bay Downs has been part of my life since I was a boy,” said Casse, who was elected last year to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. “My dad (late horseman Norman E. Casse, the long-time chairman of the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company) took me there when I was about 12 and kids weren’t allowed into the racetrack, back in the early 1970s.

“He would park outside of the 3/16-pole and I’d put a chair in the back of his truck and watch the races. He’d buy me hot dogs and a program, and I’d tell him my selections so he could make a few bets for me.”

Saturday marked five years to the day since the elder Casse died at 79.

Thoroughbred racing, it seems, has always transcended the generation gap. There was jockey Jose Ferrer, 56, summoning all his experience and guile to outduel Hidden Stash and Rafael Bejarano in a thrilling stretch duel as his wife Steffi and their sons, 6-year-old Derek and 5-year-old Joseph, shouted their encouragement.

“I heard their voices. I always hear them screaming for me when I’m coming down the lane,” Ferrer said. “I was up all night Saturday thinking about it, just enjoying it and embracing it and thanking God for the opportunity, especially with my wife and children there.

“I think it was the best win I ever had. It was a winning combination all the way around.”

All thanks to a 3-year-old colt who hadn’t raced in four-and-a-half months, had never competed on dirt and had never raced around two turns.

Now, Helium is 3-for-3 and virtually assured of qualifying for the May 1 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve with the 50 “Road to the Kentucky Derby” qualifying points he picked up Saturday. Hidden Stash earned 20 points to move into eighth place with 22 points, and the third-place finisher, Moonlite Strike, earned 10 points to settle in 16th place with 11 points.

Helium’s standing will become official when owner D. J. Stable pays a supplemental Triple Crown nomination fee of $6,000, which Casse believed Leonard Green and his family will take care of soon. They had missed the deadline of Jan. 23 for early nominations.

Helium earned $210,000 for Saturday’s victory, which wasn’t foreseen by most of the experts and bettors who sent him off at 15-1 odds. Casse said Helium may go straight to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve off his Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby victory, although a final decision will be made later.

Casse and the Greens probably need a little longer to digest what transpired.

“I’m not easily worried, but I was kind of worried because he had so much adversity to overcome,” Casse said. After winning the seven-furlong Display Stakes on Woodbine’s synthetic Tapeta surface on Oct. 18, “we planned to run him in the (Grade 3) Grey Stakes (on Nov. 22), but it snowed and they cancelled the race.”

That happened after Woodbine officials had announced the last three weeks of the meeting would be cancelled due to COVID-19 restrictions, meaning the Grey would not be rescheduled.

“We took him to New Orleans next and were going to run him in the Grade 3 Lecomte at Fair Grounds (on Jan. 16), but he wrenched an ankle one morning. Nothing serious, but we brought him home to Ocala and gave him about 10 days off before we put him back in training,” Casse said.

After working out twice at the Casse Training Center in Ocala, the conditioner sent Helium to his Palm Meadows Training Center base in Boynton Beach to continue preparations under assistant Nick Tomlinson. “When we get horses ready to run on a deeper surface (such as Tampa Bay Downs), that’s where we take them,” Casse said. “I have to give so much credit to Nick.”

Casse didn’t say much before the race, except to state his belief the son of Ironicus–Thundering Emilia, by Thunder Gulch, belonged against other relatively untested 3-year-olds.

For his part, Ferrer had never been aboard Helium before getting on in the paddock, and it had been so long since he rode in the Tampa Bay Derby (1993) that he didn’t recall that race.

Not that he hadn’t won a whole bunch of races in a lot of different places. Ferrer entered Saturday with more than 4,500 victories and 26 graded-stakes triumphs.

“He tried to buck twice when we went to the track and the pony went to grab him,” Ferrer said. “I don’t know if he was trying to make a statement to me, but I petted him and talked to him and he settled down. Sometimes they want to act like little kids, and you just have to let them know you’re on the same team. After that, he was perfect.”

Helium broke slowly and was wide going into the first turn, but Ferrer knew it was too early to despair. “I just told myself to keep going, and he did fine,” the jockey said. Meanwhile, Florida-bred Boca Boy was leading Moonlite Strike and King of Dreams, but a 6-furlong split of 1:11.38 didn’t do them any favors.

Ferrer was forced to come wide on the far turn, but this was the moment Helium had been anticipating since the fall. He had won those two seven-furlong races at Woodbine by open daylight, and muscle memory kicked in, with encouragement from his rider.

Anxiety kicked in when Hidden Stash came to Helium in mid-stretch. Bejarano had a lot of horse, too, but like a modern-day Felix the Cat, Ferrer’s bag of tricks wasn’t exhausted.

“I threw the reins in the air to let him know we weren’t done yet, and he picked up the bit again and took off,” Ferrer said, describing a technique he honed years ago under the tutelage of Angel Cordero, Jr., and Jorge Velasquez. Helium surged in front to win by three-quarters of a length.

It was an amazing scene for Ferrer, who didn’t know a little more than three years ago when he might return to action after incurring a collapsed lung, eight broken ribs and three fractured vertebrae in a multi-horse spill at Delaware in September of 2017. He was ready to return at the start of the 2017-’18 Tampa Bay Downs season and finished in sixth place that meeting with 37 victories.

“If you have faith and don’t give up, anything is possible, no matter how old you are,” Ferrer said. “Experience and fitness are what let me keep riding against these 25 and 30-year-old jockeys.”

Casse has two other 3-year-olds who might be Kentucky Derby candidates in Soup and Sandwich, who is being pointed to the March 27 Grade 1 Curlin Florida Derby Presented by Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms at Xalapa off an impressive allowance/optional claiming score here on Feb. 24, and Grade 1 Summer Stakes winner Gretzky the Great, who may run next in the Grade 3 Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway Park on March 27.

But on a day that started off cloudy and ended with a sunburst of joyfulness for all that racing can offer, there seemed to be no harm reliving a Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby for the ages a little longer.

The post Unbeaten Helium Lifts Casse’s Kentucky Derby Hopes With Sparkling Return At Tampa Bay appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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