Mark Casse: From Canada To The Kentucky Derby Training War Of Will
By: Ben Baugh
It seems as if Mark Casse has always been around horses. His prescience has been nothing short of phenomenal, having the vision and being able to realize his dream.
The Hall of Fame conditioner moved to Ocala, Florida when he was five years old, having lived on a farm with his father, Norman Casse, who was a horseman. He still considers the city in Marion County home and his favorite place to be.
A Sense of Self
The eventual 10-time Sovereign Award-winning trainer was a natural fit for the sport of thoroughbred racing, almost as if Casse was predestined to be a thoroughbred conditioner. When all of his friends were reading comic books and playing games, he was reading and diligently studying the Daily Racing Form, absorbing as much information as he possibly could.
“I always knew what I wanted to do,” said Casse. “Never for one day have I ever questioned what I wanted to do. Now, there have been days that I’ve said to myself, I’m not sure you’ve made the right decision.”
America’s most storied racetrack would also play a pivotal role in shaping Casse’s future. His annual sojourn to upstate New York would powerfully resonate with him, leaving an indelible impression that fueled his passion even further.
“I can remember when I was 12, Saratoga was the highlight of my year,” said Casse. “My [late] dad would take us to Saratoga. A lot of times, we lived in just an RV right outside of the Fasig-Tipton Sales pavilion. We would walk everywhere. The Racing Form used to come out maybe around 8 o’clock at night, the night before the races. My dad and I would always walk and wait on it. I would read the Racing Form from front to back.
“I would go to the Hall of Fame all the time and look at it and … the great horses. I told [my dad], ‘one day I’m going to be in here dad’, so being nominated this year is a dream come true. I feel confident that my father’s up there smiling somewhere.”
Racetracks rich with tradition have played a role in Casse’s life, with the twin spires of Churchill Downs providing an extraordinary backdrop to an exemplary career that had its period of adversity.
“Churchill is kind of where I started; I started my career in Kentucky,” said Casse. “I went and saw Secretariat win the Derby there. I saw Riva Ridge win the Derby there, so to be able to go back … that was an interesting time.”
From Kentucky, Casse would relocate to New York, but things didn’t go as seamlessly as he had expected and he found that he wasn’t enjoying himself on the New York circuit.
“I guess it would’ve been in about 1985 or 1986, when I made the decision to go back to Kentucky and, within two years, I was the leading trainer there.” said Casse. “My dad helped me a lot in doing that. He would have four or five stalls, and he said, ‘Look, if you want to come back to Kentucky, I’ll give you those four or five horses, and you can start back in Kentucky.’ So, when I did that, I started with five or six and, within two months, we had 30 or 40 and just built from there.”
Evolution and Adjustments
Recently, one of Casse’s sons turned 16 and when asked if he would like to be that age again, his response was “no.”
“I’m extremely happy and very proud of where I am today. It hasn’t always been smooth sailing,” said Casse. “I don’t play golf anymore, but this is the best way to describe how I look at things — I had this conversation with my son — he pitched, playing baseball, and didn’t do very well. I said, ‘You can do one of two things: You can say, OK, it didn’t work out, and you can pout about it. Or you can say, why didn’t it work out?’
“And that’s always been kind of me. I try to say, okay, you threw me a curve ball; I missed it this time, but I’m going to hit it the next time. And those are the things you learn from experience. I have 40 years of experience [in racing].”
Casse’s determination and perseverance has allowed him to overcome the adversity, obstacles and pitfalls associated with a sport renowned for making even the most confident and competent horseman humble. This flexibility and resiliency has largely contributed to his success as a horseman.
“I feel like I’ve been knocked down so many times, but it makes me better,” said Casse.
Mentors Who Made a Difference
There were two men that played a significant role in Casse’s development as a horseman during the early stages of his career. One was his father, Norman, and the other was a prominent breeder and owner who enjoyed success in business and as the owner of an NBA championship-winning franchise.
“Without a doubt, if you said to me, ‘Name two men or two people who’ve had the biggest influence in where you are today’, obviously it would be my dad, and the second would be Mr. [Harry T.] Mangurian. We have some wonderful people that I’ve been fortunate enough to be associated with a ‘presence,’ we’ll say, in the last 10 years, [that have] helped us to go to the top. I couldn’t have done it without them.
“My dad loved me and always was there to help. The person who saw something in me that nobody else did was Mr. Mangurian. I think he realized how well I understood the game. He gave me the ability to use those understandings to be successful.”
Talent and Triumphs
There have been many talented horses that have come through Casse’s barn, including five Breeders’ Cup winners: Catch a Glimpse (Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, 2015), Tepin (Breeders’ Cup Mile, 2015), Classic Empire, (Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, 2016), World Approval (Breeders’ Cup Mile, 2017), and Shamrock Rose (Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, 2018).
The 10-time Sovereign Award winner also trained four Canadian Horses of the Year: Sealy Hill (2007), Uncaptured (2012), Lexie Lou (2014) and Catch a Glimpse (2015).
“I’m proud that we’ve had numerous champions, not just in Canada, but in the US; there’s so much that I’m proud of with that part,” said Casse.
A Son’s Suggestion
“I guess it was 10 or 12 years ago [when] my son Norman, who was a Kentucky boy, said, ‘Dad, you have to come back to Kentucky.’ We were doing well in Toronto. I love Toronto. He said, ‘Don’t you want to be more than just that?’ And that’s what kind of convinced me to come [back] and spread our wings. Of course, we couldn’t have done it without the John Oxleys, the Charlotte Webers and Gary Barbers,” said Casse.
Commitment and Caring
Casse’s commitment to his owners, his dedication to thoroughbred racing and doing what’s in the best interest of the horse, is what has made him one of the most respected names in the industry.
“[The owners] saw something in me that gave them the confidence [to send me horses],” said Casse. “I’ve given them everything I have. In this game, you’re lucky if you’re right 10 percent of the time when you’re out buying young horses or finding horses. They understand that. I make a lot of mistakes, but you can bet one thing: they’re all done with the best [of] intentions. When people put as much faith as those people do in me, it hurts me to let them down. I can remember at a young age, [there was] one day my dad told me he wasn’t proud of my actions, and that hurt me more than anything. I’m a sensitive guy.”
Family has always been important to the Hall of Fame trainer. He’s very proud of his son, Norman, and the direction his career has taken since he’s gone out on his own as a trainer to follow in his father’s footsteps.
But there are still things Casse would like to accomplish.
One of those is to win the Kentucky Derby (G1), something he’s envisioned doing from a young age.
“NBC did a show and I was on it with my brother [when] I was about 10, and I said I wanted to win the Kentucky Derby,” said Casse. “I haven’t been able to do that yet. The other one would be [to be inducted to] the [National Museum of Racing] Hall of Fame [in Saratoga Springs]. I think if I could accomplish those two things, I feel like I will have accomplished my goals.”
Reputation and Character
Even with all of the things Casse’s accomplished, including induction into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame, there’s one thing that’s extremely important to him.
“I want people to say through it all that I’m a good person,” said Casse.
Kentucky Derby Bound
One horse who’s captured the attention of many in the racing world this Derby prep season is the Casse-trained War of Will, who was bred by Flaxman Holdings and is owned by Gary Barber. The bay son of War Front turned heads throughout the winter with victories in the LeComte Stakes (G3) and the Risen Star Presented By Lemarque Ford (G2) at the Fair Grounds in Louisiana.
“Gary Barber has been so supportive. He’s a wonderful man and a good friend,” said Casse. “You’ll have a tough time finding anybody who loves horse racing more than Gary Barber. It’s nice to win for people and it’s nice to do well. It’s even better when you can do it with someone who you feel is a good person and deserves it. And with Gary Barber, I’m extremely fortunate. Those are the type of people I train for.”
There’s No Place Like Home
The conditioner’s Casse Training Center in Ocala plays an integral role in the horseman’s operation.
“They’re kind of the behind-the-scene people,” said Casse. “If it wasn’t for them, Classic Empire never wins the Arkansas Derby (G1) and never makes it to the Kentucky Derby. They are the foundation of everything we do; 90 percent of the horses that come through our organization [go here]. It helps make them who they are.”
Thrill of a Lifetime
Casse has enjoyed a number highlights during his career, but one moment stands out.
“What we were able to do at Royal Ascot with Tepin would probably be number one, especially seeing how hard it is to go over there [and do well], especially with the older horses. Our younger [American-based] horses do well there a lot because I think we probably put more emphasis on our younger horses than [Europeans] do. But you seldom see the older horses go over there and be able to run with the best. I’m extremely proud of that, to be able to go over there, and meet the queen. I’ll never forget that.”
“[The success of] Tepin and World Approval were both extremely gratifying because I don’t necessarily believe they started as great horses, but they became great horses, and I think they became that [with] a lot of patience and planning — both owned by two wonderful people that understand the game, Robert Masterson and Charlotte Weber,” said Casse. “They understand when we say, ‘Hey, we need to give her time. We need to do this. We need to have a plan’.
“If you look, both of them [Tepin and World Approval] had periods in their racing careers where [their careers] could’ve both went either way. They were tailing off [in the early-stages of their careers]. Tepin got beat 15 lengths in her last start as a three-year-old, and World Approval was similar in that his last few races weren’t great as a three-year-old. But we came up with a plan, gave them time, and they became who they are. The difference between those types of horses and a horse like War of Will, [who] from the beginning [has] shown that he’s special. We just try to keep War of Will going in the right direction and try not to get in his way. War of Will has always been a star, where those two became stars. I feel like, in our hands, they became stars. I think War of Will would become a star in almost anyone’s hands.”
The Larger Picture
With Casse, his passion and enthusiasm for thoroughbred racing is palpable and contagious.
“Training horses — and I’ve said this many times — it’s putting a puzzle together. You try a lot of pieces and sometimes they don’t fit,” said Casse. “But when they do fit, and you get it all worked out, it’s a beautiful picture. Most times it never gets worked out because there isn’t a beautiful picture at the beginning; you’re working on a puzzle that’s missing pieces. It’s not so different if you go and play solitaire. When you finally win, it takes strategizing and concentration. It takes a lot of hard work, but when you’re able to accomplish that, it’s nice.”