The long two-block journey to the Kentucky Derby
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The rows of small, wooden-frame houses with tiny lawns and chain-link fences on Dresden Avenue are just a block from Churchill Downs. On that narrow street you can hear the crowds, see the lights during night racing – and if the wind is blowing south, you might even smell the horse manure from the barn area.
Yet they’re a million miles away from the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle.
Derby dreams that percolate in the hardscrabble South End neighborhood that borders America’s most famous racetrack are rarely realistic. The distance between those working-class people and the plutocracy that dominates the upper echelon of thoroughbred racing is almost impossible to navigate.
Close as it is, you can’t get there from here.
Until now, perhaps.
Classic Empire, a headstrong colt whose Derby bid appeared doomed by infirmity and intractability during the winter, could deliver a true son of the South End to the throne of racing.
When Norman Casse was born, his parents brought him home to their house on Dresden, which is across Longfield Avenue from Churchill. Norman’s father, Mark, trained a few racehorses there – not many at the time, and all of them cheap. Later, the family moved to a duplex on Queen Avenue, just outside the Gate 10 entrance to the track that has hosted the sport’s signature race since 1875.
Until last year, the Casse family still owned that duplex. The family patriarch and namesake of his grandson, Norman, charged $50 on Derby day to park in the lawn on Queen. That was the eternal neighborhood hustle – everyone looking for a way to make a buck off the out-of-towners who flock to the track.
Young Norman Casse’s earliest Derby memories are selling T-shirts on the front porch, selling Cokes, selling water to men in suits and women in big hats as they walked toward the Twin Spires.
“We sold it all for grandpa,” he said between bites of meatballs and tater tots at a Louisville restaurant this week. “I don’t remember seeing any of that money.”
The elder Casse was such a hardball Derby profiteer that in later years he even charged his grandsons to park at the property on Queen on the first Saturday in May. The full $50, no family discount. This was a guy who also supplemented his income for years by scalping Derby tickets – a thriving underground economy in Louisville.
“He just loved making money off the Kentucky Derby,” the younger Norman said.
The late Norman Casse, who died last year at the age of 79, found many ways to make money over the years. He ran a booming fireworks business that is now headed by his son, John, and still does shows all over Florida. But most significantly, Norman Casse became one of the foundational figures in the thoroughbred breeding industry in Ocala, Fla. – helping build up a place that now rivals Lexington, Ky., for the title of the worldwide breeding epicenter of the sport.
If there is a missing person that the members of Team Casse wish could join them Saturday to see Classic Empire go to post and chase immortality, it’s the man who got the family started in this business. Norman handed the horseracing bug to Mark who handed it to the younger Norman – who didn’t embrace it for many years.
Smarty Jones changed all that.
“Everyone has a horse, the one horse that hooks you on the sport,” Norman said. “That’s my horse.”
After graduating from North Bullitt High School in 2002, Norman attended Bellarmine University, a small Catholic school in Louisville. He studied business and had no real interest in following his trainer father into a racetrack life, despite having grown up around it.
But in 2004, he was enthralled watching an undefeated chestnut colt dominate the Derby. When Smarty Jones followed that performance by blowing away the field at the Preakness, Norman Casse was fully captivated. He was convinced Smarty would win the Belmont and become the first Triple Crown champion of his lifetime.
Completely emotionally invested, Norman watched the Belmont by himself in his room. When a tiring Smarty Jones was passed in deep stretch by Birdstone, it bummed out everyone who wasn’t holding a ticket on the winner.
Norman Casse was among the most crushed.
“I came out of my room crying,” he said. “My brother Joel said, ‘I don’t know why you’re so upset, unless you’re going to do this as a job.’ ”
The seed was sown, but it took a while to grow. A couple of years later, armed with a business degree from Bellarmine, Casse was miserable working a desk job in Florida. He called his dad, in tears yet with great trepidation, and said he finally was ready to try the training business.
“Why the hell haven’t you told me?” Mark Casse said, then invited his son to join his operation in Canada.
The next morning, Norman got in his car and drove from Ocala to Toronto. He reported to his dad’s barn and didn’t take a day off for the next three years, totally immersing himself in the craft of horsemanship.
“Since then, every single day, I have envisioned winning the Kentucky Derby,” Norman said. “At some point in time every day – at the gym, in the car, in the grocery – I think about it.”
Mark Casse had long since moved his operation north of the border, tiring of the Kentucky circuit he worked with increasing success in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He was the leading trainer at Churchill for the ’88 spring meet, a career highlight, but his business didn’t truly take off until he went north of the border.
As the wins piled up, more clients kept coming Mark Casse’s way. And as Norman acquired training knowledge, he and his father hatched a plan to expand their operation: Norman would open a division back at their old Kentucky home, Churchill Downs, in addition to the already established winter base in Florida.
In 2012, the Casses picked up their most important client of all in Tulsa oilman John Oxley. He’d won the 2001 Kentucky Derby with Monarchos and had many other racing successes, but his private trainer, John Ward, got out of the business to join the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. Picking up Oxley’s horses was a huge boost to the aspirations of Team Casse.
“Before Mr. Oxley, we probably had a better shot at winning the lottery than winning the Derby,” Mark Casse said.
Today, Casse Racing has divisions at Gulstream Park in South Florida, Belmont Park in New York, Churchill and Keeneland in Kentucky and Woodbine Race Course in Toronto. Norman oversees much of the American racing.
“[Mark] gives me free rein,” Norman said. “He said, ‘Here’s your horses, you decide the schedule, you decide the races, and if we disagree we’ll talk about it.’
“He doesn’t want to take credit for our success. But at the end of the day, he trained me.”
In late April 2016, a 2-year-old was vanned west on Interstate 64 from the Casse operation in Lexington to the Casse barn at Churchill. He was a well-bred colt named Classic Empire, identified by assistant trainer David Carroll as a promising young runner. A few days later, Classic Empire won his debut race in the slop under jockey Julien Leparoux.
The horse didn’t race again until the final day of Churchill’s spring meet, July 2, when he won the Bashford Manor Stakes – one of the major races identifying contenders for top 2-year-olds in the country. That victory, again with Leparoux aboard, secured Mark Casse’s first Churchill training title since the one in ’88, a milestone everyone in the barn badly wanted.
Classic Empire’s third race, the high-profile Hopeful Stakes in Saratoga in September, quickly quieted the building buzz – and hinted at the difficulties the colt would provide in the months to come. Sent to post as the favorite, Classic Empire reared coming out of the gate and dumped jockey Irad Ortiz.
“We’re absolutely dejected,” Norman recalled. “We’re sitting at the barn trying to figure out what to do.”
The Casses went back to Leparoux as their jockey on the horse and decided to send him out of the starting gate for his workouts leading up to the Breeders’ Cup Futurity at Keeneland – a plan that worked to perfection. Classic Empire rolled to victory, stamping himself as a factor in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile race, the highlight event for 2-year-old horses.
When Empire held on in that race at Santa Anita by a neck, he stamped himself the champion 2-year-old and the early favorite for the 2017 Kentucky Derby.
“That was the most rewarding experience of our careers,” Norman said.
There were many exasperating experiences to come with that horse, however.
Norman Casse already had started calling Classic Empire “Racing’s Bad Boy” because of his occasional refusal to work in the morning. Like many of the rest of us, the animal simply didn’t seem enthused about getting up early and exercising. But when his existence is predicated on speed and conditioning, this was a major problem that only got worse over the winter.
Classic Empire had a sluggish workout before the February Holy Bull Stakes in Florida. He lived down to that precursor in the race, finishing a well-beaten third as the 1-2 favorite.
Afterward, Team Casse discovered a hoof abscess, which came as a relief – at least it was something they could treat, even if it meant missed training time. Yet once the hoof was healed, Classic Empire basically went on strike.
Multiple times, Classic Empire went to the track at Palm Meadows Training Complex in South Florida for scheduled major works and simply wouldn’t run hard despite the exercise rider’s urging. Eventually, and somewhat embarrassingly, it became news – champion 2-year-old won’t run.
“He’s a very intelligent horse,” Norman Casse said. “And he decided he didn’t want to train. We got him ready to work, and he didn’t want to.”
Missed workouts pushed back the horse’s racing schedule, imperiling the entire Derby plan. Horse racing annals are filled with horses who are thrown off the Derby trail by minor setbacks – because even a minor issue can become a major issue in the delicate yet taxing race to readiness for the first Saturday in May.
Basically, everything needs to go right in the weeks and months leading to Louisville. And with Classic Empire, nothing went right for a very long time.
“We decided to send him back to [the Casse farm] in Ocala,” Norman said. “It was a last-ditch effort. If he didn’t train there, we would have to give up and wait for summer.”
On the day of Classic Empire’s scheduled work at Ocala, Norman got up at 3 a.m. to drive there from Palm Meadows. He had no optimism that the horse would do anything more than he had in previous weeks, which was basically staging a work stoppage.
But on that morning, at last, Classic Empire relented.
“He worked lights out,” Norman said. “From then on out, he hasn’t had a bad day.”
Back on track, Classic Empire punched his Derby ticket by winning the Arkansas Derby April 15. Upon arrival at Churchill, he turned in a work last Friday that Mark Casse said produced “chills.”
Those two events were enough that Derby oddsmaker Mike Battaglia has said he will name Classic Empire the favorite after the post-position draw Wednesday.
And thus a Derby dream that appeared headed off the rails was put back on course. Rather against the odds.
“A lot of people have said what a great training job we’ve done,” Mark Casse said. “I appreciate that. But to do a great job you’ve got to have a great horse. A good horse can win when things go their way. A great horse can win when things don’t go their way.”
Mark and Norman Casse, third-generation horsemen who spent years on the wrong side of the track in Louisville’s beaten-down South End, will lead over a potentially great horse for the Kentucky Derby. It is a short distance from Dresden Avenue, but they’ve had to come so far from those modest days in pursuit of this dream.
It could all be two minutes away Saturday.