Patience, Passion Led Horse Racing Hall of Fame Trainer Mark Casse to Stardom
January 23rd, 2023 BY J. Keeler Johnson
There she was – in the lead, vying for victory in the final furlong of the historic Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot in England. When Tepin gallantly crossed the finish line in front, the mare had made history as the first American-trained racehorse to win Royal Ascot’s signature meet-opening race. Sharing the glory was the trainer who made it all possible, the trainer who never made a wrong move in managing a versatile but slow-maturing racehorse until she was ready to make history on a world stage.
That trainer would be Mark E. Casse, an Indianapolis native born in 1961. From an early age, he seemed destined for a future in the sport of horse racing; his father, Norman Casse, was involved in all aspects of the sport as a trainer, breeder, farm manager, and co-founder of the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co.
Years later, when Mark Casse was inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame, he would count attending the 1973 Kentucky Derby with his father – and watching the legendary Secretariat dominate – as a fond memory and a pivotal moment in his childhood.
Casse, far left, with Tepin at Keeneland. (Eclipse Sportswire)
Following in his father’s footsteps, Casse aimed for a future in the racing industry and was just 18 years old when he saddled his first starter as a trainer at Florida Downs on March 1, 1979. A little more than six weeks later, Casse scored a victory at historic Keeneland, winning the April 14 opener with a heavily-raced veteran claimer named Joe’s Coming. By the end of the year, Casse was competing in stakes races with the filly Amalie, a former claimer whom Casse transformed into the winner of the Indian Maid Handicap at Sportsman’s Park.
Still, the first two decades of Casse’s training career were relatively quiet by his future standards. From 1979 through 1990, he averaged 31 wins a year and won a few meet titles at Turfway Park and Churchill Downs during the late 1980s. His biggest victory came with Raja’s Shark, a capable 3-year-old who won the Grade 3 Jamaica Handicap in 1984 at Belmont Park, and for a brief time, Casse even worked as a private trainer for historic Calumet Farm.
Casse’s numbers slowed down considerably through the 1990s, but that was only because he changed hats to work primarily as the manager of Harry T. Mangurian Jr.’s Mockingbird Farm in Florida.
When Casse resumed his role as a full-fledged trainer in 1998, it didn’t take long for him to strike at the highest levels of the sport.
One of Casse’s early stars was Exciting Story, bred and owned by Mangurian. Winner of the Grade 3 Synford Stakes at Woodbine as a 2-year-old in 1999, Exciting Story was patiently handled by Casse, and following a generally unsuccessful 3-year-old season, the colt flourished at age 4 and fired off back-to-back victories in the Grade 3 Vigil Handicap and the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap.
A familiar site at the racetrack: Casse wearing a smile. (Eclipse Sportswire)
By making Woodbine in Canada his home base, Casse practically became a Canadian himself in the eyes of racing fans. That’s certainly understandable; he was the leading trainer at Woodbine in 2002 and followed up with 10 more titles from 2007 through 2016. Major stakes wins started coming in bunches – he won his first Canadian Triple Crown race in 2007 and has added five more wins since then – and he received three straight Sovereign Awards as Canada’s outstanding trainer from 2006 through 2008.
It was around this time – toward the end of the 2000s – that Casse forged a new partnership with famed polo player John Oxley, who had already found success in racing as the owner of 2001 Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos. With Oxley as a high-profile client, Casse began upgrading the quality of his stock, and the results were eye-catching.
“I’ve been doing this for 35 years and I’ve never really had the pocketbook before,” Casse told writer Deirdre B. Biles in a story for Bloodhorse.com. “I used to always have to buy cheap horses and hope for the best. Now, when I see a horse I like at the sales, I have a good shot to buy it, and the ones I buy have been running good. The goal is to have a really good racing stable and try to compete in the best races.”
Well, those goals were quickly achieved. Graded stakes winners like Prospective, Northern Passion, Stealcase, Uncaptured, Spring in the Air, and Dixie Strike – all owned by Oxley – helped propel Casse to career-best years in 2011 and 2012; another budding partnership with film producer Gary Barber resulted in Lexie Lou winning the 2014 Queen’s Plate Stakes on her way to a Sovereign Award as Canada’s Horse of the Year.
These talented horses and others took Casse back and forth across North America, competing in the Kentucky Derby, the Breeders’ Cup, and other storied events from coast to coast. But it was Tepin who set Casse’s stable on the road to international acclaim, though she did so in a roundabout manner.
Originally, the daughter of Bernstein showed talent on dirt, winning the Grade 3 Delta Downs Princess Stakes in 2013.
But before long, Casse correctly concluded that Tepin’s future was on grass, and following an abbreviated (and winless) campaign in 2014, Casse’s patience and insight paid off as Tepin won five of her seven starts on the grass in 2015, culminating with a dominant triumph against males in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Mile.
Casse scored a Breeders’ Cup double in 2015, winning the Grade 1 Juvenile Fillies Turf with Catch a Glimpse, Canada’s 2015 Horse of the Year. Those were the highlights of Casse’s best season yet, but the next two years were even better as Tepin made history at Royal Ascot, Catch a Glimpse continued her winning ways, and new stars like Classic Empire and World Approval emerged as champions with career-defining wins in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and 2017 Breeders’ Cup Mile, respectively.
Casse with Classic Empire. (Eclipse Sportswire)
Casse’s work with Classic Empire epitomized his ability to train challenging horses. As a 2-year-old, the Oxley-owned colt had trouble with breaking from the starting gate, even losing his rider at the start of the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga. But after Casse equipped the colt with blinkers and spent a lot of time with schooling sessions, Classic Empire overcame his difficulties and won three Grade 1 races during his decorated career.
More than 40 years after he saddled his first starter, it’s safe to say that Casse is enjoying the fruits of his labor. He has ranked among the top seven North American trainers by purse earnings every year from 2011 to 2022, he’s winning graded stakes races by the dozen for old and new clients alike, and he conditioned at least one winner at every Breeders’ Cup from 2015 to 2018.
That Breeders’ Cup run came to an end in 2019 … but was offset by Casse’s success on the Triple Crown trail. He tallied his first two wins in North American racing’s most storied series with War of Will in the Preakness Stakes and Sir Winston in the Belmont Stakes. Casse’s training job with War of Will reflects on his skill at identifying a horse’s talent. The colt began his career on turf with some success but blossomed after being switched to dirt for Kentucky Derby preps early in 2019. Casse has since moved the classic winner back to turf, and in 2020 War of Will established himself as a top-flight grass runner at age 4, winning the Grade 1 Maker’s Mark Mile over the summer.
Those accomplishments only added to Casse’s already established status as one of the sport’s very best trainers, and he was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in 2020.
John Oxley, for one, believes that Casse is the key reason for his stable’s resurgent success over the last decade.
“There are so many components [to the success of my stable],” explained Oxley in the Nov. 12, 2016 edition of BloodHorse, “but foremost is Mark Casse and his incredible team. He’s put together the finest operation out there with top assistants and personnel on all levels. He’s the brains behind it all. And he’s awfully good at picking out yearlings and 2-year-olds to buy.”
Truthfully, one could exchange “awfully good” for “great” and no one would argue. Casse has won the Sovereign Award as Canada’s outstanding trainer every year since 2011 and added another Breeders’ Cup win in 2022 when Wonder Wheel took the NetJets Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies.
Horse racing is a sport of uncertainties, but if there’s one thing you can count on, it’s that Mark Casse will continue to saddle winner after winner for the foreseeable future.
Note: This story was originally published in 2019 and has been updated.
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