Back in May of 1994, Hockey Hall of Fame legend Mark Messier made one of the boldest guarantees in sports. With the New York Rangers facing elimination in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final against the New Jersey Devils, the captain guaranteed his team would win and force a deciding Game 7.
Twenty-eight years after Messier and his Rangers made good on the promise, a thoroughbred named in his honour is guaranteed to be one of the favourites to contend for the 148th Kentucky Derby.
Canadian-bred racehorse “Messier” will be one of 20 entrants in the annual Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs on May 7. The three-year-old colt is owned by a syndicate of horse racing enthusiasts, one of which provides a unique connection to one of the best players in hockey history.
“We have some close hockey ties to my wife [Katie’s] family,” explains Tom Ryan, managing partner of SF Bloodstock/SF Racing LLC. “Her father is Pat Hughes and her uncle is Mark Napier and both played [and won the Stanley Cup] with Messier. A couple of years ago, I attended an Oilers reunion where her father & uncle were … and we got to spend time with members of [the] team in Edmonton.
“We spent time with all the great players from that era. Not long after, I spoke to my father-in-law about naming a horse after Messier. His comment at the time was: ‘If you’re going to do it, get it right!’ So far, the horse is holding down his end of the bargain. He’s extremely talented, just like his namesake.”
The road to Louisville for “Messier” has been a memorable one to say the least. The horse was born and bred at Sam-Son Farms in Milton, Ontario in 2019. Ryan and members of his ownership consortium wound up purchasing the horse as a yearling a year later for $470,000 US. That group put well-known trainer Bob Baffert in charge of the horse, and it began racing in California last June.
“Messier” won his first race, the Bob Hope Stakes, at Del Mar in San Diego last November. In February, the thoroughbred easily captured the Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita — one of over 30 Kentucky Derby prep races where horses earn points to qualify for the first leg of the Triple Crown. However, “Messier” was ineligible to accrue those points as it was trained by Baffert, who remains suspended by Churchill Downs. The suspension stems from last year’s Derby where Baffert-trained “Medina Spirt” wound up being disqualified from victory after testing positive for the banned race-day substance betamethasone.
For “Messier” to be eligible to qualify for the Derby, Ryan and the other owners elected to remove Baffert and have the horse conditioned by fellow California-trainer Tim Yakteen. “Messier” is one of a handful of horses who were under Baffert’s care now running for Yakteen. That includes fellow colt “Taiba” who beat Messier by two lengths at the Santa Anita Derby on April 9. Both horses earned enough points to qualify for Saturday’s Kentucky Derby.
“I feel he came out of the Santa Anita Derby in great shape,” adds Ryan, who has had “Messier” training in California all of April before heading to Kentucky. “His appetite has been great. His energy and attitude have been great. Everything is clicking at the moment … which gives you confidence that we’re going there with the right horse and that we’re legitimate.
“We have a Grade 1 horse that, in my personal opinion, I would not choose to swap for anybody else in the race,” Ryan says. “We definitely haven’t seen the best of this horse yet. I think there’s bigger and better things to come.”
Those are bold words from a horseman who has seen “Messier” finish first three times and second another three times over six lifetime starts. But Ryan also speaks from having plenty of experience of ending up in the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs, as he was part owner of previous Derby winners “Super Saver” (2010), “Justify” (2018) and “Authentic” (2020).
“The excitement is starting to build,” Ryan adds. “That tends to be the case when you feel like you have a legitimate chance. This horse is coming into this race exactly how you would want him to.”
When asked if Mark Messier would be in attendance for this year’s Derby, Ryan would only answer: “I think there’s a chance. I don’t think anything is confirmed yet, but I think the likelihood is that he’ll be there.”
If the six-time Stanley Cup winner is there in person to watch the race covering the one-and-a-quarter-mile track, he could be watching history. “Messier” is aiming to become just the third Canadian-bred horse to win the Kentucky Derby. “Northern Dancer” was the first to do it in 1964 while “Sunny’s Halo” won the roses in 1983.
NOTES & TIDBITS
— “Messier” enters the weekend as the third favourite with morning line odds of 8-1. Three-time Derby-winning jockey John Velazquez will be in the saddle. His last Derby victory came in 2020 aboard “Authentic”.
— One other horse with Canadian connections that beat “Messier” in a Derby prep race won’t be running at Churchill this week. “Slow Down Andy” (owned by Windsor, ON native Paul Reddam), finished 11th in Derby qualifying but has been sidelined after spiking a fever in mid-April. Two-time Derby-winning jockey Mario Gutierrez (who raced at Hastings Racecourse in Vancouver in the early 2000s) was scheduled to ride Reddam’s horse.
— The favourite going into this weekend’s race is “Zandon”. Having earned the second-most qualifying points of any horse in the starting gate, “Zandon” won the Blue Grass Stakes on April 9 and is trained by Chad Brown, who is searching for his first win at the Derby.