Team Casse Thrives Together

By Alicia Hughes

If there is a commonality that stretches across most major racing jurisdictions in North America, it is that evidence of Mark Casse’s Hall of Fame career can be found at nearly every locale where significant accolades are earned.

At Toronto’s palatial Woodbine oval, the signature red and white signage depicting the presence of Casse Racing has been dominant for so long, the Indiana-born trainer must occasionally remind acquaintances he is not, in fact, a native of Canada. Head down to New York, stopover in Kentucky, drive through Louisiana on the way to Florida and one will again find representatives of the Casse operation at every point of call.

Few horsemen can boast of having an impact that is as far-reaching as it is prolific since the task of trying to keep multiple balls in the air often results in something being dropped. What has separated Casse from even his most deft of peers, however, is the fact virtually every runner representing his barn in recent times has had the benefit of the same all-encompassing support system.

The conductor of one of the most far-flung operations in Thoroughbred racing is an easy man to find most days, namely keeping watch over the 135-acre mission control he and his wife Tina, the CEO of Casse Racing, founded more than 20 years ago. Since its inception, the Casse Racing Training Center has been the not-so-secret weapon behind its namesake’s ascent into his sport’s rarified air, responsible for launching the careers of a litany of top-level runners that have helped put the venerable conditioner alongside some of the greats to ever ply the craft.

Born out of the first 10 acres Casse purchased nearly a quarter century ago, the facility that bears his moniker has expanded in both scope and significance over the years, providing his young proteges the foundation they need to unearth their potential and allowing the veteran trainer to steer multiple ships from one central masthead. From teaching future runners their first lessons under saddle to the in-house rehab and exercise facilities, the Casse Racing Training Center not only prepares clients’ horses for the competitive challenges they will face but can uniquely tailor one of the industry’s most successful programs to each individual from the ground up.

While the training center itself underwent a major renovation about six years ago, the team behind it – one that includes longtime general manager Mitch Downs and the undisputed heartbeat of the operation that is Tina Casse – has remained as stalwart as the philosophies it was built upon. And once his charges embark on their racing careers, the full breadth and depth of the Casse curriculum are even more amplified, as evident by the fact the last decade of his more than 40-year career has been his most successful.

“For years, we’ve been breaking our horses and doing our thing and…it’s a big, big deal,” Casse, a member of both the United States and Canadian Halls of Fame, said of his homegrown operation. “We have about 10 teammates that have been with us 25 years or more that understand our program. What happens a lot of times is horses go to a training center and they’re broke, they’re getting ready, and then they go to different trainers and I always find that there’s a little communication lost in the middle. It takes a while once it goes from one organization to another organization. When you’re with us, you’re with one organization. There is no loss there. And I think that’s important.

“My job is to oversee all that. My assistants will send me their suggestions, and most of the time I agree with what they’re saying because they know me. But every day I go over what every horse is going to do and…I think our program works.”

In actuality, the success of Casse Racing isn’t up for debate.

With more than $213 million in career earnings and counting, Casse currently ranks eighth all-time among North American trainers and has not dipped below $11 million in earnings annually over the past nine seasons. He has won so many Sovereign Awards as Canada’s leading trainer (14) that keeping track of the tally requires an abacus and since 2015, the Casse barn has celebrated six Breeders’ Cup wins and two victories in Triple Crown races while producing Eclipse Award champions like the brilliant Tepin – the oft-proclaimed “Queen of the Turf” who conquered males on both sides of the Atlantic – Classic Empire, World Approval, and Shamrock Rose.

When War of Will and Sir Winston combined to capture the 2019 Preakness and Belmont Stakes, respectively, it allowed Casse to join legends D. Wayne Lukas and Todd Pletcher in the annals of trainers to win Triple Crown races with two different horses in the same season. Though his numbers may speak for themself, Casse’s main measurement when it comes to analyzing his success is based on how well he has provided the equine athletes in his care the proper platform they need to showcase their talents.

“The thing that I enjoy most about Mark is that he’s a two-time Hall of Famer, but he’ll never say it to you,” said Jonathan Green, general manager of his family’s D. J. Stable, which owns Casse’s latest Breeders’ Cup victor in 2022 Juvenile Fillies heroine, Wonder Wheel. “He’ll never say, ‘You know when I won the Preakness with War of Will, we did XYZ’.  He is willing to listen and try things. He is on the cutting edge of different therapies and he’s always willing to try something new for the betterment of the horses.

“Obviously, we all want to win every time we saddle a horse and put it in the game. But the reality of it is if a horse can get a good experience from that race and get some education and learn some things about how how to be a racehorse, that’s more valuable even than hitting the wire first. We’re in tune with Mark on that philosophy. We always want to win, but it’s more important for our horses to end each race better than they did the previous race.”

The son of Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company co-founder Norman E. Casse, Mark Casse has had a high level of expertise instilled in him from the time he first started mucking the stalls and studying the Daily Racing Form. There was never any other career objective he had for himself other than that of horseman. Thus, it is no shock one of Casse’s best assets is his ability to read between the lines of what his charges are telling him.

When 2016 juvenile male champion Classic Empire was plagued by a back issue early in his sophomore year and refused to train, Casse took the quirky colt back to his base at Winding Oaks Farm, reunited him with the staff that handled him as a baby, and got the son of Pioneerof the Nile right physically and mentally in time for him to annex the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby and make that year’s Kentucky Derby.

When his filly Got Stormy was still coming off her skin days after taking the 2019 De La Rose Stakes at Saratoga, Casse wheeled the chestnut dynamo back a week later and into the record books as she became the first female runner to best males in the Grade 1 Fourstardave Handicap, her first of two victories in that prestigious test.

He is not afraid to get his 2-year-olds started early and often and won’t hesitate to change tactics midstream – as he did when he put War of Will back on turf for the colt’s 4-year-old season, allowing the son of War Front to become a Grade 1 winner on both surfaces courtesy of his triumph in the 2020 Maker’s Mark Mile Stakes. It is an adaptability that is a direct result of his operation’s proven versatility.

“There is no chance, without that program, there’s no way a horse like Classic Empire makes it,” Casse said. “We had to bring Classic Empire back home and almost rebreak him because he wouldn’t train. But when you have your own training centers as well, a lot of times we can go in the opposite direction. We can change things up and it’s a big plus. We run a lot of horses and we win a lot of races right off the training center.”

Added longtime Casse client John Oxley, who owned and campaigned Classic Empire, “Of course, Classic Empire was not an easy horse to train but Mark just did a marvelous job with him. I had won Kentucky Derby previously, but I’d always wanted to have a 2-year-old champion and…that period of time was one of the best, most exciting and rewarding and fun that I’ve had in about 50 years of racing.”

If it takes a village just to get a horse to the racetrack, it takes a squad of exceptional symmetry to help one succeed at the highest level. Fittingly, it is the filly who is slated to become Casse’s latest champion that is arguably one of the best examples of how the entirety of his operation converged to help lift her to the head of her class.

Purchased by D. J. Stable for $275,000 out of the 2021 Keeneland September Yearling Sale, Wonder Wheel has been kicking every bar set before her higher since putting in her first timed workout at the Casse Training Center last March. After starting out at the track with Keeneland-based assistant trainer Alan Hardy, Wonder Wheel broke her maiden first time out at Churchill Downs on June 3, 2022, and stayed there with assistant David Carroll through her victory in the Debutante Stakes one month later.

After New York-based assistant Shane Tripp helped prep the daughter of Into Mischief for a runner-up effort in the Grade 1 Spinaway Stakes at Saratoga in September, Wonder Wheel came back into Hardy’s care at Keeneland where she brought the hammer down on her divisional foes with victories in the Grade 1 Darley Alcibiades Stakes and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies – that latter of which saw the dark bay filly abandon her usual front-running style and rally from 11th to score a three-length triumph.  

“Wonder Wheel is a great example of the continuity of the program and also, people leaving their egos aside,” Green said. “It would have been very easy for Mark to say, you know, Wonder Wheel is such a phenomenal horse, I never want her to leave my side. But he has faith in his assistants and in his program to where he did send her to Kentucky to run and when she was done in Kentucky, David Carroll and Alan Hardy were good enough to say this filly belongs on a bigger stage.

He has faith in his assistants and in his program to where he did send her to Kentucky to run and when she was done in Kentucky, David Carroll and Alan Hardy were good enough to say this filly belongs on a bigger stage.

“It’s all those unseen lessons that are being taught to the young horses and that’s why the majority of horses that we buy now are yearlings and we send them immediately from the respective sales directly to Mark’s camp down in Ocala,” Green continued. “So, are we paying a little bit more for having a trainer’s day rate starting in July or August as yearlings? Absolutely. But it comes back to you 100-fold when you have a horse like Wonder Wheel that that wins a race like that in the Breeders’ Cup. And it’s because she’s calm and she’s been through that situation before because that’s the way they are trained as young horses all the way through Casse’s program.”

Diligent as he is about keeping his operation seamless, Casse is equally earnest in crediting all those who have helped keep the train on the rails for decades now – hence his use of the phrase ‘teammates’ instead of ‘employees’. Every day he goes to work, he does so with the weight of an entire operation upon him but also, the privilege of multiple shoulders helping him bear the load.

“One of the things that drew us to Mark when we first started interviewing trainers to work with us about four or five years ago, is the fact that Mark had a team of people support him that enable him to do what he does best, which is pick out young horses and develop young horses,” Green said. “

The team he has, starting with his wife, Tina, and working your way through the staff and the people who work at the farm, there’s just a continuity of quality people. They all know how to work together. It’s quite an organizational phenomenon.”

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