Four days before Messier loads into the gate shortly before 7 p.m. Saturday at Churchill Downs, Tom Zwiesler is already excited just thinking about the possibility of the horse he raised winning the 148th running of the Kentucky Derby.
“If it were to happen, it would just be magical. I think this horse is running for all of Canada, not only the family.”
The family Zwiesler is referring to is the Samuel/Balaz clan that founded Canada’s famed Sam-Son Farm in Ontario exactly 50 years ago. Zwiesler has spent most of the last two decades working for Sam-Son. In October 2020, Sam-Son announced it was getting out of the horse-breeding business.
Messier is not only the product of five generations of Sam-Son breeding. He is also part of the second-last crop of horses Sam-Son produced at its main Milton, ON, farm. He was sold at auction as a yearling in 2020 for $470,000 (US) to a group of American buyers.
Just the 3rd Canadian-bred Derby winner
Sam-Son has never won the Kentucky Derby.
Beyond being a poignant moment for the farm and its connections, a win in Saturday’s $3 million event would make Messier just the third Canadian-bred horse to win the Derby in the race’s long history.
Northern Dancer first turned the trick in 1965. Sunny’s Halo was next in 1983.
And Messier (pictured) has a legitimate shot, too. The son of Empire Maker out of Sam-Son’s Smart Strike mare Checkered Past is pegged as the third choice at 8-1 in the morning line. The Derby can be wagered on in Canada through HPIBet.com.
“I’m not going to go (to the Derby). I went last year. I get quite nervous. I think it would be better to just sit back, watch it on TV and you’ll be able to hear me in Kentucky, maybe, if he’s in the hunt there late.”
Alpha of the group
Sam-Son’s long-time farm manager Dave Whitford gets the credit for deciding the mating that produced Messier. Though the horse was foaled in Ontario under Whitford’s direction, he defers to Zwiesler as the man who spent the most time raising the horse in Ocala, FL. Whitford said:
“We have them for a few months and we wean them and then we send them to Ocala.”
Zwiesler spent every day for a year with Messier before the horse was sold. Zwiesler said:
“He was just a cool horse to be around. He was the alpha out in the field. He dominated all his buddies. They looked up to him as the boss. I’m not saying that just because he’s in the Derby. That was certainly his MO out in the field. He just took care of everybody.”
Fittingly named for a Canadian legend
That the new owners named the horse after Alberta-born hockey legend Mark Messier was kismet, especially for a Canadian-bred horse.
Part-owner Tom Ryan’s wife, Katie, is the daughter of former Edmonton Oiler Pat Hughes and the niece of Hughes’ teammate Mark Napier. Both Hughes and Napier played on the Stanley Cup-winning Edmonton teams that included Messier.
So far, Messier the Horse appears to have similar athletic gifts as his namesake. He is also blessed to have post 6 and three-time Derby winner John Valazquez (pictured above after his 2017 Derby win), the highest-earning jockey in history, in the saddle. Messier is trained by former Bob Baffert assistant Tim Yakteen.
“I think Messier has a hell of a shot. He’s got a lot of tactical speed and probably should be able to get out of trouble jumping out of the six hole. I think he’ll probably get pretty close to the front.”
Whitford has conflicting rooting interests
Whitford — who now works for Sumaya Farm in Kentucky after 19 years at Sam-Son and 16 years at Windfields, another famed Canadian farm — said he’ll be cheering first for Sumaya’s homebred Derby starter Pioneer of Medina (post 11, 30-1). But if Pioneer of Medina doesn’t win, he said he hopes Messier does.
“I volunteered to stay at the farm (on Derby Day). The management from here is going to the races and I’m going to stay here and celebrate with the staff, hopefully. We’ll have a wild party if it goes well for this farm and certainly if Messier wins, I’ll have a very wild private party.”
Either way, Whitford said he doubts he would ever “come down” from a Derby triumph.
“It would be the highlight of my career, for sure. I don’t think I could do any better. It would be really special.”
Sam-Son one of the last great racing families
Zwiesler said a victory by Messier would be tremendously special to him, but an even better tribute to one of racing’s great families.
“The family is absolutely the best at letting you do your job and, at the same time, letting the horse come into their own. They never pushed us. If the horse needed time, they waited the horses out. I think it paid off in spades the way that they are. It’s a very expensive game and they were absolutely the finest at letting these horses come around at their own pace.”
Sadly, major family-run farms are slowly disappearing. Zwiesler continued:
“Our game has changed. Sam-Son has been in it almost 50 years. When I got in the game 40 years ago, these were the crème-de-la-crème. The Whitneys, the Phipps, the Samuels. Up until five, six years ago, they were just a couple of the last family-run farms that bred, raised and raced.
“The game has changed so much with syndicates and bringing partnerships together and having 100 owners on a horse. A lot of that is due to the fact that the game is a very expensive game… Your business plans have to change. You have to bring people in, it seems like. (Messier) fell into that category. They paid big money for him and there’s a lot of owners. It’s a great way for our game to expand. It’s the new reality in racing.”