He's named after one of pro hockey's biggest stars but Tom Ryan says Messier, the heralded thoroughbred, shares more than just the same moniker as the six-time Stanley Cup champion.
Ryan, the managing partner of SF Bloodstock/SF Racing LLC — which has an ownership stake in the three-year-old colt — should know.
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His father-in-law, Pat Hughes, was a member of the Edmonton Oilers' 1984 and '85 Stanley Cup-winning teams, playing alongside both Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier. And an uncle is none other than Mark Napier, who also played for the '85 championship squad.
Ryan met Messier during a celebration in Edmonton after the 1984-85 Oilers were voted as the NHL's all-time best team in 2017.
"Obviously Mark Messier's story is a tremendous one," said the Irish-born Ryan. "One Stanley Cup is a dream for any hockey player but to win six is a remarkable feat.
"Mark Messier has the look of a great racehorse. He has strength in the right places, he's well balanced and has power. When you look at Messier, the horse, he's an intimidating figure. First, he catches your eye and secondly, you're drawn to his balance and sheer size."
But what can't be seen also makes Messier special.
"He has that intelligent look in his eye," Ryan said. "People might underestimate intelligence in an animal but they shouldn't, it's very important.
"You need a horse that isn't intimidated, you need a horse that enjoys racing, you need a horse that has the appetite to go through a hole that sometimes it needs to fight for. We see all of those things in Messier."
Messier has won three of his six career starts and never finished worse than second. Messier was born and bred at Sam-Son Farm, in Milton, Ont., and sold for US$470,000 as a yearling.
Messier began racing in California in 2021 under Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. But Baffert's horses couldn't collect '22 Derby qualifying points because he's suspended by Churchill Downs after last year's Derby champion, the Baffert-trained Medina Spirit, was disqualified following a positive drug test.
In March, Messier was among three horses Baffert transferred to Tim Yakteen, another California trainer, thus making them eligible to collect Derby qualifying points. Another, Backadder, moved to Kentucky to train under Rodolphe Brisset.
Messier enters the Derby following a second-place finish in last month's Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby. Taiba, another Yakteen trainee, overtook Messier down the stretch for the two-length win at Santa Anita in Arcadia, Calif.
Taiba, unbeaten in two career starts, joins Messier in the starter's gate Saturday at Churchill Downs. But Ryan said both Messier and jockey John Velazquez have moved on from the Santa Anita Derby.
"Taiba can't be under-estimated … he was already a formidable foe," Ryan said. "But I really feel like we're ready to take on the big stage here.
"We have a horse with a good mind and, more importantly, a man piloting him who's as cool as a cucumber, savvy and understands the big day. It's like a kid coming from college hockey into the NHL, you sometimes can get bedazzled. Johnny V won't get bedazzled, he's going to be ready."
Messier is the early 8-1 third choice behind Zandon (3-1) and Epicenter (7-2). Messier will break from the No. 6 post in the 20-horse field.
Zandon drew the No. 10 spot while Epicenter has the No. 3 post. Taiba, a 12-1 pick, starts from the No. 12 post.
"In speaking to Johnny, he believes he has the right horse," Ryan said. "If you look at the end of the Santa Anita Derby, he looked after Messier.
"When Taiba went past him, he let Messier cruise to the line. I think he knows he has something up his sleeve, he knows Messier is going to move forward and we really feel we've seen it in his attitude and training and appetite, in every which way you want to qualify it."
Messier is looking to become just the third Canadian-bred horse to win the Derby and first since Sunny's Halo in 1983. The other was the legendary Northern Dance in 1964.
But Ryan said if Messier wins the first jewel of the American Triple Crown, there'll be many people who can share in it.
"So may people have had a part in his journey," Ryan said. "Hundreds of hands have touched this horse from the time he was born in Canada, sold as a yearling in Kentucky, broken as a two-year-old in Florida, raced first as a two-year-old in California to now coming back to Kentucky to take on the world in the first leg of the Triple Crown.
"Look, a Kentucky Derby win would be a huge accomplishment in so many respects. There's only one a year, right? We have 20,000 head born a year and if you end up in that starting gate you've already won to some degree. If you end up coming across that finish line first, not only would it mean a lot to us as an ownership group, it would be a massive accomplishment for so many others."
Ryan added the connections remain very grateful for the Canadian support the horse has received.
"He's a horse Canada should be proud of," Ryan said "Sam-Son Farm did an exceptional job in breeding, raising and presenting this horse.
"I can tell you we bought this horse because he just represented star-class quality … he was one of our top draft picks. You don't get them all but we're certainly proud and happy we landed him."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 4, 2022.