When Messier enters the starting gate as one of the favorites for the 148th Kentucky Derby, he will be trying to become only the third Canadian-bred horse to win the race. Many people will be rooting for him, few more fervently than the man he is named after, the former N.H.L. great Mark Messier.
Mark Messier, who was born in St. Albert, Alberta, won six Stanley Cup championships, five with the Edmonton Oilers and one with the New York Rangers, and is the only player to captain two teams to hockey’s ultimate prize.
Tom Ryan, the managing partner of SF Racing, which co-owns the horse, is married to Katie Hughes, the daughter of Pat Hughes, who played with Mark Messier and Wayne Gretzky on the Edmonton Oilers teams that won the Cup in 1984 and 1985. Katie Hughes’s uncle Mark Napier also played on the 1985 team.
A few years ago, Ryan and his family attended an Oilers reunion in Edmonton, and Ryan said that he was so enamored with Messier after speaking with him that he knew he wanted to name a horse after him.
When it came time to name the colt, who was born at Sam-Son Farm in Milton, Ontario, and purchased for $470,000 as a yearling, Ryan knew that this was the one who should carry the name.
Hughes had one requirement for Ryan.
“The only thing I told him when he told me wanted to name a horse Messier was that he better get it right,” Hughes said. “Messier is one of the greatest to ever play the game, and you don’t want to mess with a name like that.”
So far, the horse is holding down his end of the bargain. He has finished first or second in six starts, earning $435,600.
Mark Messier, who is an analyst for ESPN and is covering the N.H.L. playoffs, was unable to make it to the Derby. But he has followed the horse’s career and will be rooting him on from his home in Greenwich, Conn., along with his brother, Paul, and his father, Doug, a former player and coach and avid horse racing fan.
“We’ve all just so enamored with it,” Mark Messier said, adding that he once bought his father a share of a horse as a Christmas present.
Hughes tested positive for the coronavirus and will watch from his home in Ann Arbor, Mich. He said he texts with Mark and Doug Messier to keep them updated about the horse.
Mark Messier’s leadership helped the Rangers end a 54-year Stanley Cup drought in 1994, earning him the nickname the Messiah. He has also been called the Moose because of his determination, aggression and strength. Messier’s breeders said the colt exhibited similar traits when he was a youngster.
The people rooting for Messier would love to pull into the Belmont Stakes next month with a Triple Crown on the line and drawing counsel from the man who has another nickname, perhaps the most relevant one: Mr. June.