Ontario bred Messier putting in a workout leading into the 2022 Kentucky Derby. Photo by Tom Ryan
Tom Ryan is quite happy to channel his inner Canadian leading up to the Kentucky Derby.
The man behind SF Racing, and part-owner of Derby hopeful Messier, wasn’t born in Canada, but he does have some notable connections to the country.
“I’m 100 percent Irish, but at this point, I’m half Canadian,” quipped Ryan. “I married (his wife’s name is Katie) into a Canadian family, and I’ve spent some lovely memorable times there. My wife’s mom is from Prince Edward Island, and I have to say it is one of the most scenic, peaceful, almost rural, forgotten places on earth, a place to behold.”
Ryan, who also heads SF Bloodstock, is thrilled to know Messier will have a legion of fans across Canada cheering on the son of Empire Maker, including those who’ll tune in to watch the race at Woodbine this Saturday.
Northern Dancer, in 1964, and Sunny’s Halo, in 1983, are the only Canadian-breds to have won the Derby.
The horse named after NHL legend Mark Messier, pegged at 8-1 in the morning line, has a legitimate shot to become the third.
“The outreach from Canada has been beautiful,” said Ryan. “It’s lovely to see. It’s great to get acknowledgment for Messier and our personal family ties. These events and these horses, they touch a lot of people and a lot of lives. The connectivity of it all is pretty extraordinary.”
Bred in Ontario by Sam-Son Farm, Messier, trained by Tim Yakteen, sold for $470,000 as a yearling at Fasig-Tipton in 2020.
It was high-profile bloodstock agent, Montreal native Donato Lanni, who picked out the colt on behalf of SF Racing, Starlight Racing, Madaket Stables, Robert Masterson, Jay A. Schoenfarber, Waves Edge Capital, Catherine M. Donovan, and Golconda Stable.
Ryan has high praise for Lanni’s ability to pick out top-rank talent.
“He is amazing at what he does, and he obviously did a fantastic job finding us this horse. Plus, there is that Canadian connection with him as well.”
Messier’s career bow came last June at Los Alamitos where he finished second while sprinting five furlongs on the main strip. He stretched out to six panels in his second start, which resulted in a 6 ½-length score at Santa Anita.
In the second last start of his two-year-old campaign, he notched a 3 ½-length win in the Grade 3 Bob Hope Stakes at Del Mar. He completed his rookie season with a sharp runner-up effort in the Grade 2 Los Alamitos Futurity on December 11.
Messier launched his 2022 season with a 15-length romp in the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita on February 6. He arrives at the Derby off a second-place performance in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby.
The bay fashions three wins and three seconds from six starts, along with $435,600 in purse earnings.
“You buy these horses with the best of intentions,” started Ryan. “In that crop, we might have bought 34 and we’re down to five as to what we consider serious horses at this point. So, in saying that, 29 are not at the elite level that we’re really trying source. That’s not that to say they wouldn’t be good horses for someone else, but we’re looking for horses that could have stud careers at the end in Kentucky or elsewhere.
“Messier showed his hand at every step of the way,” he continued. “When we bought him, he was a pure gentleman. Every day we inspected him, he showed himself well. When we put him into pre-training, he took the process in stride. He was one of the first horses we shipped from Florida to California. He also was one of the first two-year-olds we started. He’s touted himself all along. ‘Put me in coach, I’m ready.’”
Bred to go long, Messier will be making his third start of the layoff and is partnered with Hall of Fame rider John Velazquez for the Derby.
Ryan et al are hoping the horse who boasts an enviable combination of early speed and a strong finishing kick will come up with his top effort to date.
He doesn’t need to be reminded that Messier’s namesake was one of hockey’s greatest leaders and most spirited, hard-nosed competitors, a player known for elevating his game on the biggest stage.
“I would say this horse is peaking at the right time, that he knows it’s his time and you can see that in his eyes and attitude. You can sense that he’s ready. I think this horse’s willingness and attitude stands out for me. His appetite for work is insatiable and his physique – how he’s developed from a yearling to a two-year-old to a three-year-old – is like going from junior hockey to the NHL. He’s really taken that step. He’s not in the farm league anymore. He’s got potential to be an all-star.”
He could also very well be the winner of horse racing’s version of the Stanley Cup, which would suit Messier’s Canadian racing fans and Ryan just fine.
In hockey parlance, it will, quite fittingly, noted Ryan, take a team effort to hoist the coveted Derby trophy.
“I’m surrounded with some wonderful people, including Tim Yakteen as the trainer. He’s really stepped into the role and done a phenomenal job. We have fantastic grooms, caretakers – everyone who is connected to this horse. Having Johnny Velazquez riding the horse, that takes a lot of pressure off. He knows how to win the big races. We’re giving the horse every chance to be all that he can be.”