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Mark Casse

Down the Shedrow with Mark Casse

By Christie DeBernardis

With 235 wins, 26 of which were graded stakes victories with eight of those being Grade Is, and $17.95-million in earnings, Mark Casse had a career-best year in 2016 to say the least. A new addition to Canada’s Racing Hall of Fame in 2016, the 55-year-old, who is a six-time Sovereign Award winner, was nominated for his first Eclipse Award following his stellar 2016 season.

Even if he doesn’t take home top trainer honors at the Eclipse ceremony Saturday night, the conditioner is still very likely to stand at the podium at Gulfstream thanks to Classic Empire (Pioneerof the Nile), who is heavily favored in the champion juvenile category, and Tepin (Bernstein), who looks primed to take home her second straight Eclipse as top turf mare.

“I’m very proud of [the fact we have two likely Eclipse winners in the barn],” Casse said. “That is the ultimate goal with any horse, for them to be champion and to have two of them in one year is amazing.”

With Classic Empire and Tepin coming back for more in 2017 and a long list of top runners in the barn, Casse has every chance to build on his 2016 success this term.

“We are cautiously optimistic. It’s tough. Every year I keep saying, ‘How are we going to beat the previous year?’ But, we are going to try.

CLASSIC EMPIRE (c, 3, Pioneerof the Nile)

John Oxley scooped up Classic Empire for $475,000 as a yearling at Keeneland September and the colt proved to be a wise investment from the get go. Following a debut victory at Churchill Downs May 4 with a victory in the GIII Bashford Manor S. July 2, the bay threw his rider at the start of Saratoga’s GI Hopeful S. Sept. 5, but came back to score an impressive win in Keeneland’s GI Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity S. Oct. 8. He wrapped up what is likely to be a championship season with a gritty neck victory over the recently retired Not This Time (Giant’s Causeway) in the GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita Nov. 5 (video).

“He’s doing very well. If everything continues on as it is now, he’s going to make the [GII Lambholm South] Holy Bull [S. Feb. 4]. I was really happy with his last work. We are going to get another work into him soon and he is coming along nicely.”

TEPIN (m, 6, Bernstein)

Robert Masterson’s Tepin already has an Eclipse award to her merit after a stellar 2015 season that culminated in a dominant victory in the GI Breeders’ Cup Mile. The bay was equally sensational in 2016, capturing her first six starts of the year, including a historic victory in the G1 Queen Anne S. at Royal Ascot in June a defeat of males in the GI Ricoh Woodbine Mile Sept. 17. Second behind loose-on-the-lead Photo Call (Ire) (Galileo {Ire} in the GI First Lady S. Oct. 8, she was a valiant second to Tourist (Tiznow) when last seen in the Breeders’ Cup Mile Nov. 5.

“We’re still looking at the [GIII Lambholm South] Endeavour [S. Feb. 11]. The plan is to breeze her Sunday. She gets a little rambunctious in her stall sometimes. She was supposed to breeze the other day, but she kicked the wall and knocked her shoe off. It made her a little tender behind for a day or two so she missed a few days. That’s not the first time she’s done this to us. We are aiming for Sunday to breeze her and we will go from there.”

“We are trying to make Dubai. We want her to be at the top of her game or we aren’t going to make that attempt. Honestly, she is still in the ‘does she want to be a racehorse or does she want to be a mommy’ mode. We are going to make a final decision on that in the next week or two so it will just depend on how she trains. She is six now and she has done so much that what else is out there for her. I guess Dubai would be that, but if we aren’t going to make Dubai I don’t know if she will continue on.”

TAKEOFF (c, 3, Arch)

A $550,000 OBSMAR buy, Oxley’s Takeoff broke his maiden last time out at the Fair Grounds Dec. 26 after two prior attempts in Kentucky. The dark bay is entered in Saturday’s GIII LeComte S. in NOLA.

“Takeoff is doing well. He is a horse we had high expectations for and he kind of disappointed us a little bit, but I think his last race was good. We still aren’t exactly sure what Takeoff wants or how good he is. We are going to find out at least one of those answers probably this weekend. I kind of have a feeling he may be better on turf, but we will see.”

SUMMERTIME SKY (f, 3, Sky Mesa)

Oxley will also be represented by a homebred runner this weekend at Fair Grounds in Summertime Sky, a contender in Saturday’s Silverbulletday S. The dark bay donned cap and gown at first asking on the sod in NOLA Dec. 31.

“She was very impressive in her maiden win. She’s going [from turf] to the dirt. It’s a tough spot, especially for her second start, but I want to feel like when we are running, especially when they are young, that we are learning something about them. Our goal is always trying to develop horses. I am always saying training horses is questions. You are always asking questions. Sometimes you just don’t like the answers. Those questions help you determine the path they are going to forward. Both Summertime Sky and Takeoff are in that stage where we don’t know how good they are. They have potential.”

VALADORNA (f, 3, Curlin)

Stonestreet Stables homebred Valdorna showed she was one to watch with a dominant six-length graduation at second asking at Keeneland Oct. 7, which earned her “TDN Rising Star” status (video). The bay came charging late to come within three-quarters of a length of longshot winner Champagne Room (Broken Vow) when second in the GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Nov. 5.

“We are going to run her next week down at the Fair Grounds. We are very excited about her. She is going in an allowance race and hopefully a big race will point her to the [GII] Rachel Alexandra [S. Feb. 25].”

PRETTY CITY DANCER (f, 3, Tapit)

A second-out graduate at Churchill May 27, Oxley’s Pretty City Dancer, a $825,000 KEESEP purchase, captured Churchill’s Debutante S. July 2 and was a dead-heat winner of Saratoga’s GI Spinaway S. Sept. 3 (video). The gray most recently worked a bullet five panels in 1:02 at Palm Meadows Jan. 15.

“She is doing extremely well. She has a big work planned for this weekend and if all goes well she is scheduled to run in the [GII] Forward Gal S. [Feb. 4].”

LA CORONEL (f, 3, Colonel John)

Earning her diploma at third asking at Saratoga Sept. 5, La Coronel followed suit with a win in Keeneland’s GI JP Morgan Chase Jessamine S. Oct. 12 (video). Drawn in post 14 in the GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, the Oxley colorbearer made up ground late to check in sixth Nov. 4.

“She got a little bit of a break, but is back training and looks wonderful. She picked up about 75 pounds. She will have her first breeze in maybe three weeks. There isn’t a whole lot for the better turf fillies in the winter time, so we will get her ready more for late spring and summer.”

CATCH A GLIMPSE (f, 4, City Zip)

Winner of three Sovereign Awards in 2015, one of which was as Canada’s Horse of the Year, Catch a Glimpse won her first five starts of 2016, including a defeat of males in the GIII Penn Mile and a victory in the GI Belmont Oaks. The Gary Barber, Michael Ambler and Windways Farm runner was a close second to subsequent GI QEII Challenge Cup heroine Time and Motion (Tapit) in the GII Lake Placid S. and turned in disappointing efforts in her last two outings, finishing off the board in both the QEII Oct. 15 and the GI Breeders’ Cup F/M Turf Nov. 5.

“She is going to have her first breeze back this weekend at Palm Meadows. I would like to aim her for the [GII] Churchill Downs Distaff Turf Mile on [GI Kentucky] Derby day. That would be my first goal, but how we get there I don’t know yet.”

TAMIT (IRE) (f, 3, Fastnet Rock {Aus})

Masteron has another talented turf female ready to follow in his champion Tepin’s footsteps in Tamit, who earned “TDN Rising Star” status for an explosive come-from-behind victory in her career bow at Keeneland Oct. 22 (video). The bay came running late once again to be a close second in a Gulfstream optional claimer on New Year’s Day.

“She is a very nice filly. She ran the other day and got beat, but I thought she was valiant in defeat. I think she is going to do big things. She may come back in the [GIII] Sweetest Chant [S. Feb. 4].”

SUMMER LUCK (f, 3, Lookin at Lucky)

Earning her diploma at second asking at Churchill Downs Nov. 11, Gary Barber’s Summer Luck checked in third last time in Gulfstream’s Old Hat S. Jan. 7.

“Another filly that I’m high on is Summer Luck. She got kind of knocked around in the Old Hat S. [Jan. 7] when she finished third. I’d really like to run her two turns, but there isn’t anything right now. She could possibly end up against Pretty City Dancer in the Forward Gal.”

TOUR DE FORCE (c, 4, Tiznow)

A $1.35-million KEESEP buy for Oxley and breeder Kinsman Farm, Tour de Force checked in second when unveiled at Fair Grounds Dec. 4, but graduated next out in NOLA Jan. 15.

“Another horse I’m really excited about for a lot of reasons and who I think will be our next Noble Bird is Tour de Force. He is maybe the best looking horse I have ever trained. He just had one thing after another and is like a family pet now, so it was very rewarding to watch him win. He’s a big horse and he has a great stride. He will probably run in an allowance next.”

VICTORY TO VICTORY (f, 3, Exchange Rate)

Off the board in her Saratoga debut Aug. 12, Victory to Victory came back on just 15 days rest to finish second on the Woodbine lawn Aug. 27. The Live Oak homebred earned her diploma in that venue’s GI Natalma S. last time out Sept. 18 (video) and was scratched from an intended start in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf.

“The other good filly we have is Victory to Victory. She ended up with a deep, deep hind foot bruise, probably as bad as I’ve ever seen. It took us forever to get that thing to open up and drain. She’s been back galloping now for a couple of weeks and you should be seeing her in the worktab soon.”

WORLD APPROVAL (g, 5, Northern Afleet)

Live Oak homebred World Approval hit the board in both the GI Woodford Reserve Turf Classic and the GI Woodford Reserve Manhattan S. this spring and finally broke through at the highest level with a win in the GI United Nations S. July 3. Off the board in the GI Arlington Million Aug. 13, the blue-blooded turfer completed the trifecta in the GI Northern Dancer S. Sept. 17 and was eighth last time in the GI Pattison Canadian International S. Oct. 16. The gray last breezed Dec. 17, covering a half-mile in :47.95 on the Palm Meadows lawn.

“We are excited about him. We had thought about maybe aiming him for the Sunshine Millions, but he wasn’t as happy as we wanted him to be so we backed off him a little bit. He’s been happier recently so he is going to work again soon.”

NOBLE BIRD (h, 6, Birdstone)

Oxley’s 2015 GI Stephen Foster H. winner Noble Bird scored back-to-back victories in October in the Lukas Classic S. and GII Hagyard Fayette S. and was most recently seventh in the GI Clark H. Nov. 25. The bay is scheduled to face off with GI Breeders’ Cup Classic one-two Arrogate (Unbridled’s Song) and California Chrome (Lucky Pulpit) in the $12-million GI Pegasus World Cup Jan. 28.

“He worked very well. He’s always been a great work horse. Everyone knows there are two Noble Birds, the Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. You just don’t know which one you are going to get. A mile and an eighth is probably his best distance. I believe he holds the track record at Keeneland going that far. I have the greatest respect for California Chrome and Arrogate and even on his best day, I’m not sure Noble Bird is capable of beating either one of those horses. But, if Noble Bird were to have a really good day and those two were to have a little bit of an off day, then maybe. There are 12 million reasons to give it a try!”

THIRSTFORLIFE (c, 3, Stay Thirsty)

A half-brother to MGISW Cavorting (Bernardini), Thirstforlife was tabbed a “TDN Rising Star” following an impressive second-out graduation at Churchill June 4. Third in the GII Best Pal S. Aug. 13, the chestnut was off the board in the GIII Iroquois S. Sept. 17, but rebounded with a Keeneland allowance win Oct. 20. Owned by Gary Barber, St Elias Stable and the Coolmore contingent, Thirstforlife was last seen finishing seventh in the GIII Delta Downs Jackpot Nov. 19.

“He got a quarter crack in his last race at Delta Downs. We are giving him some time to grow his foot out and he has just started back training. He is at our training center in Ocala. I have no plans for him right now.”

AIROFORCE (c, 4, Colonel John)

A black-type winner on both turf and dirt during his 2015 juvenile campaign, Oxley’s Airoforce was winless in 2016, but finished second in both the Penn Mile and the GII National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame S. Aug. 5. The gray was last seen finishing seventh in the Dueling Grounds Derby Sept. 11 and returned to the worktab at Casse’s Ocala training center with a three-furlong move in :36.80 Jan. 13.

“I love Airoforce. He got a little break. It was his first break since he was a yearling. He is breezing now in Ocala and is about ready to join Norman at Palm Meadows.”

KEEP QUIET (FR) (c, 3, Elusive City)

Following his Saratoga graduation Aug. 6 with a runner-up effort in the GII With Anticipation S. Aug. 31, Keep Quiet captured the GIII Dixiana Bourbon S. at Keeneland Oct. 9. The Gary Barber runner was last seen finishing eighth in the GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Nov. 4.

“We gave him some time and he was breezing down at Palm Meadows and hurt his hind ankle. Now he is out for a couple months. He will be fine, but he is on some R&R right now.”

CONQUEST TYPHOON (h, 5, Stormy Atlantic)

One of Casse’s biggest clients Ernie Semersky dispersed his Conquest Stable at Keeneland November, but Casse could not let Sovereign Award winner Conquest Typhoon go, purchasing the bay for $115,000. The MGSW, who was last seen finishing fourth in a Woodbine allowance Oct. 14, makes his first start for new owner Gary Barber Friday in the third race at Gulfstream.

“He is in [Friday]. He is the barn favorite and has been forever. He is a character and all of the girls love him in the barn. When he runs his race, he is tough.”

CONQUEST PANTHERA (g, 5, Kitten’s Joy)

Another Conquest horse still in the barn thanks to Barber is $100,000 KEENOV buy Conquest Panthera. The “TDN Rising Star” won his last two allowance starts, most recently scoring at Gulfstream Jan. 15.

“One that we think has the potential to possibly go on and become a really good horse is one that just won the other day, Conquest Panthera. He broke his maiden very impressively first time out. He ran against American Pharoah (Pioneerof the Nile), but he hurt his hind ankles fairly significantly in that race and it has taken us forever to get him back. I’m excited to get him into a race cycle. I think if we can keep him in a race cycle, he will keep getting better and better and turn out to be a really nice horse.”

SOUPER TAPIT (c, 3, Tapit)

Casse has unraced sophomore in the barn that he is particularly excited about in Live Oak homebred Souper Tapit, who most recently breezed a best-of-135 half-mile in :47.80 at Fair Grounds Jan. 14.

“We have a horse that we are very excited about down at the Fair Grounds names Souper Tapit. He’s about 10 days to two weeks from running and we think he is something special.”

KING AND HIS COURT (g, 3, Court Vision)

Gary Barber and Wachtel Stable privately purchased King and his Court after he finished third behind ill-fated Casse pupil Golden Hawk (Tapit) in the GIII Grey S. The gelding has since won both the Coronation Futurity Nov. 13 and Display S. Dec. 3.

“Gary Barber bought him in the middle of the year. He would be considered the favorite right now for the Queen’s Plate S. He won his last two races in Toronto very impressively and he is going to run in either the [GIII] Withers S. [Feb. 4] in New York or the Sam Davis. He’s a nice horse so hopefully he can transfer his ability from synthetic to dirt.”

STATE OF HONOR (c, 3, To Honor and Serve)

Casse is also sending Coronation runner-up State of Honor down the GI Kentucky Derby trail. The Conrad Farms homebred followed that effort at Woodbine with a near miss in the Mucho Macho Man S. last time.

“I thought his race was super impressive in the Mucho Macho Man S. [Jan. 7]. He got beaten a head in his first start ever on dirt. He may go to the [GII] Swale S. [Feb. 4 at Gulfstream] or he may go to the [GIII] Sam F. Davis S. [at Tampa Feb. 11].”

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