Having a horse running in the Kentucky Oaks is a huge accomplishment for any Thoroughbred conditioner. Of course, all the entrants have a chance to win. But if you are sending a real live one to the starting gates, that’s another level.

Trainer Norm Casse is very familiar with the excitement and hoopla that surrounds this magical day. Always run the Friday before the Kentucky Derby, the Oaks tradition is less publicized, but those more familiar with the game realize the rich history of this race. As a Louisville native that acted as an assistant to father and Thoroughbred trainer Mark Casse before starting his own stable, the Kentucky Oaks has long been on the bucket list.

When the horses go to post on May 5 for the 149th running of the Kentucky Oaks, Casse hopes to be saddling the ever-blossoming Southlawn. Under his careful guidance, this daughter of Pioneerof the Nile has become one of the top three-year-old fillies running for the blanket of Lillies.

“We always thought she was a really good one”, says Casse, who began his own training operation in 2018. “Her breathing patterns were not always as good as they should be as a two-year-old so she didn’t run as well as we thought she would. A myectomy was performed  before she started racing this year and we have seen major improvements on the track.”

The light switch has certainly come on following the surgical procedure in 2023 as Southlawn has two wins in two starts. Her last win in the Fair Grounds Oaks on March 25 was a real showcase. A fabulous run down the home stretch saw her pull away from much higher-regarded horses with ease. A powerful 3 ¼ length score in the mile and a sixteenth race solidified what Norm already knew.

“Going into the Fair Grounds Oaks we thought she was sitting on a big race”, says Casse. “She had been training so well but we were reluctant to get too excited until she ran. It was a very exciting race for all of us and it was great to see her run like she had trained.”

Southlawn has set herself up for a big day on the first Friday in May. The challenge is getting her there healthy and in peak form. Recent works indicate the Kentucky-bred granddaughter of Uncle Mo is going in the right direction.

“We think she can continue to improve off her last race and her works have been good”, says Casse, who played baseball at Division 1 Bellarmine University in Louisville. “The Kentucky Oaks will be her third start of the year which we really like and she seems to love Churchill Downs. Our barn has been looking for a horse that can give us a landmark win in one of these really big races and we think she’s got a real chance.”

The Kentucky Oaks will be run at Churchill Downs going a mile and an eighth on May 5 with an expected field of fourteen.

3/25/2023 – Southlawn with Reylu Gutierrez aboard wins the 56th running of the Grade II Fair Grounds Oaks at Fair Grounds. Hodges Photography/ Jamie Newell