It’s been some time between Kentucky Derby mounts for Luis Contreras, but the veteran Woodbine jockey says any past experience at the big race is an advantage.
Contreras will make just his second appearance in the opening leg of American racing’s Triple Crown when Bravazo breaks from the No. 13 post Saturday at Churchill Downs. In 2012, Contreras — the first jockey to win all three Canadian Triple Crown races aboard different horses — finished 18th aboard Prospective.
Despite the six-year absence, the Mexican-born Contreras, twice Canada’s top rider, said having already ridden in the race dubbed The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports has its advantages.
“When you’re there for the first time, it’s not like anything you’ve seen before,” Contreras said. “The track is very close to the grandstand and there’s a lot of people there.
“The (Queen’s) Plate is kind of close but the Derby is still different. Now I know things are different there on that day. I also know the track more.”
Bravazo will be a decided underdog in the 20-horse field at early odds of 50-1.
“I’ve ridden with 20 horses before,” he said. “It’s a big deal but you have to be smart and be prepared for anything to happen in the race.
“You try to give your horse the best trip you can.”
Mark Casse, 10 times Canada’s top trainer, will chase his first Derby victory with Canadian-bred Flameaway. Only two Canadian-bred horses have ever won the Derby, the last being Sunny’s Halo in 1983.
The first was the incomparable Northern Dancer in 1964. Casse had two horses in last year’s race as Classic Empire (4-1 early favourite) finished fourth while Canadian-bred State of Honor was 19th.
Flameaway has hit the board in seven-of-nine starts. He’s also shown plenty of versatility, winning on dirt, grass and synthetic surfaces.
The 57-year-old Casse, an Indiana native, has left an indelible mark on Canadian racing. He has won all three legs of Canada’s Triple Crown and two years ago was inducted into the Canadian Racing Hall of Fame.
One of the few accomplishments missing, though, is a Kentucky Derby victory.
Contreras will be riding for celebrated trainer D. Wayne Lukas, 82, a four-time Derby champion. Lukas raised eyebrows when he gave Contreras the Derby mount ahead of more widely known jockeys.
“I’ve had really good luck with (Contreras) and he’s ridden horses very well for me,” Lukas said. “He seems to communicate well with me and the horses he rode (at Oaklawn), some of them ran way better numbers with him. I feel real comfortable with him.
“People will probably question (the decision) when there’s some Hall of Fame-type guys wandering here without a mount. But my answer to that is, 30 years ago I took a complete unknown and put him on Winning Colors, and that kind of worked out.”
Hall of Famer Gary Stevens earned Lukas his first Derby victory in 1988 aboard filly Winning Colors. Stevens, 55, went on to win two more Derby titles (1995, ‘96) as well as the Preakness (three times), Belmont (three times), Kentucky Oaks (twice) and 11 Breeders’ Cup events.
Stevens rode Bravazo to victory in his season debut Jan. 13 at Oaklawn Park but the son of Awesome Again won the $400,000 Risen Star Stakes on Feb. 17 with Miguel Mena aboard. Stevens returned in the saddle for the US$1-million Louisiana Derby on March 24 but Bravazo finished a distant eighth.
Despite Lukas’s impressive Derby record, Contreras doesn’t feel any pressure leading Bravazo into Saturday’s race because he knows the horse will be ready to go.
“I think there’s less pressure when you ride for a trainer like that,” Contreras said. ”He knows the horses and I feel very comfortable riding for him.”
Contreras said Bravazo likes to run close to the pace although with a 20-horse field chances are good he’ll have plenty of company.
“For that kind of race, close to the pace is good,” Contreras said. “The key is be confident _ not over-confident _ with everything to do with the horse.
“Stay calm and do what we love to do. Just take the race pole by pole.”
Contreras said securing the upset win Saturday would be the thrill of a lifetime although he’s not quite sure exactly how that would feel.
“You imagine winning the race but when you do, you can’t imagine emotionally what it would feel like,” he said. “You have to experience it.
“I can tell you, for sure, after if I win the race.”