Thoroughbred trainer Mark Casse is riding high
Ocala’s Mark Casse won the Sovereign Award for the top thoroughbred trainer in Canada for an unprecedented ninth time on Friday and a day later watched his charge, Classic Empire, become the likely Kentucky Derby favorite after a win in the Arkansas Derby.
This year was Casse’s sixth straight title as top trainer. With the win, he surpassed Roger Attfield, who also has won eight Sovereign trainer awards. The Sovereign Awards are Canada’s premier thoroughbred racing and breeding awards.
Casse said it never becomes commonplace to win the award.
“I always wondered when the Yankees won all those World Series, what drove them to win it again? I know what it is now. You don’t want to lose it. You drive just as hard. Once you have accomplished it, you don’t want to let it go,” he said.
Since expanding his stable to race across the country, maintaining the winning numbers at Canada’s Woodbine Racetrack has been a little harder.
“A lot of times our bigger horses don’t stay there. Normally a horse would run six or seven times at Woodbine. The bigger horses may now run a couple of times before they go someplace else,” Casse said.
But owners like John C. Oxley have also given him bigger horses to train in the last several years. Oxley, who is in the oil and gas exploration business in Tulsa, Oklahoma, bought one of those big horses for $475,000 as a yearling. He turned out to be Classic Empire, a 3-year-old son of Pioneerof the Nile. The colt won the $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn on Saturday to secure his spot in the Kentucky Derby as the presumptive race favorite on May 6.
Still, it was a long and troubled path to get to the winner’s circle. Classic Empire suffered through a foot abscess, a back issue and what ultimately could be described as burnout.
“He was at Palm Meadows (Training Center) down south and he was not doing well. He was not happy. We brought him back to Winding Oaks in Ocala,” Casse said. “A month and a half ago, I brought him back to Ocala. Got him back to his roots.”
Classic Empire was broken in Ocala and was reunited with his old exercise rider and other familiar faces. Unraced since an uninspired third-place finish in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park in February, Classic Empire’s Arkansas Derby performance showed the class that earned him the Eclipse Award for the top 2-year-old of 2016.
“Now, we’re going to be the favorite for the Kentucky Derby. Ocala’s never been a bigger influence on one of my horses than on Classic Empire,” Casse said. “I am an Ocala boy through and through. I love Ocala. It’s been good to me. I would love to see this horse win for Ocala as much as for anything else.”
Before the Kentucky Derby, however, Casse could be celebrating yet another honor. On Monday, the National Museum of Racing will announce the inductees into the Hall of Fame for 2017. Casse is among the three trainers nominated.
“It would be a great honor, especially since when I was 8 or 9 years old I went to the Hall of Fame with my father and I told him one day I’d be in it. It would be, as a horse trainer, my greatest achievement by far,” he said.