Unknown Commodities: Mark Casse On Bringing Freshman-Sired Runners Into The Breeders’ Cup
By: Joe Nevills
Though we can certainly start to form opinions on the talent and preferences of freshman sires by the fall, no stallion’s resume is completely written heading into their first crop’s Breeders’ Cup.
Up to this point, even the most prolific freshman sires only have a small sampling of horses at the distances and class levels seen during the championship races. Though it can help guide a narrative, a strong or poor performance by one or two runners from a debut crop on one day at a single track does not engrave a sire’s capability for putting out a precocious foal.
Trainer Mark Casse has two runners by freshman sires entered in this year’s Breeders’ Cup races for 2-year-olds, meaning he will be part of the real-time focus group learning about their sires’ abilities with the rest of the world. Casse will send Gretzky the Great, by Nyquist, to the Juvenile Turf; and Dirty Dangle, by Not This Time, to the Juvenile Turf Sprint.
This is not to say, though, that Casse is going into these races completely blind to how his runners will perform. Aside from the obvious factors of hands-on experience and the horses’ own past performance, the trainer prides himself in doing his homework when it comes to pedigree research.
“At the end of every day, I go through and look at the charts at every major racetrack, and I make mental notes of what sires are doing well on different surfaces,” he said. “I pay a lot of attention, too, to damsires. I’m big on buying out of certain damsires.”
Gretzky the Great flies the banner for sire Nyquist, a member of Darley’s stallion roster in Lexington, Ky.
Nyquist was himself part of the record-setting freshman crop for sire Uncle Mo. Both Nyquist and Uncle Mo snagged Eclipse Awards as champion 2-year-old male after winning their respective editions of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, giving plenty of evidence that Nyquist’s foals would be early types.
That has proven out thus far, with Nyquist siring a pair of Grade 1 winners heading into Novemver, making him the only North American freshman sire with more than one graded stakes winner. Nyquist’s other Grade 1 winner this season was Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies contender Vequist, who took the G1 Spinaway Stakes earlier this year.
Gretzky the Great added himself to that list when he won the Grade 1 Summer Stakes at Woodbine on Sept. 20, clinching a “Win and You’re In” berth to the Juvenile Turf in the process. The Ontario-bred has raced exclusively at Woodbine, breaking his maiden in his second start, then taking the listed Soaring Free Stakes before moving on to the Summer.
“We had high hopes on him from the beginning, but I think he’s just gotten bigger, and better, and he’s thriving,” Casse said. “He looks tremendous. He moves over the ground great. I believe if you can go a mile at Woodbine with that long stretch, you can pretty well go a mile anywhere. I think the two turns will actually be a benefit for him. He’s got enough speed, he’s going to be fairly close as long as he breaks well, and I think he’ll really like this turf course.”
Nyquist raced exclusively on dirt during his own on-track career, and while Gretzky the Great’s dam Pearl Turn started her career in Ireland, all of her wins came over the dirt after returning to the U.S.
Casse said the decision to start Gretzky the Great on the turf was part of his overarching program with his Ontario-based 2-year-olds.
“The pedigree obviously is extremely important, but that’s what we do as trainers; we try different things,” he said. “With Gretzky the Great, our Grade 1 race for 2-year-olds is the Summer, so I try to get my horses to at least give them a chance on the grass. It turns out the Nyquists can do anything.”
Nyquist leads a tight race as the leading freshman sire by progeny earnings, with $1,108,381. Tracking closely behind him in second is Taylor Made Stallions’ Not This Time, with $1,053,867.
Not This Time will be represented in Casse’s barn by Juvenile Turf Sprint contender Dirty Dangle, who is unbeaten in two starts, both at Woodbine.
The filly enters the Juvenile Turf Sprint off a 1 1/4-length closing score in the Woodbine Cares Stakes on Sept. 19. She won on debut over Woodbine’s all-weather main track in her debut.
“We purchased her after her last race, so I didn’t have the privilege of training her before, but her race on turf at Woodbine was extremely good,” Casse said. “That’s what made us purchase her.”
Dirty Dangle now races for Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners and Gary Barber, the same connections that campaign Gretzky the Great.
Not This Time’s freshman runners are led by probable Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies favorite Princess Noor, who brought $1.35 million at auction earlier this year, and has gone undefeated in three starts, including a 6 1/2-length score in the G1 Del Mar Debutante Stakes and an 8 1/4-length drubbing of the Chandelier Stakes.
Like Nyquist, Not This Time was a fast-starting 2-year-old during his own time on the racetrack, winning the G3 Iroquois Stakes leading into a runner-up finish in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.