It is a little after five o’clock in the morning and trainer Mark Casse is already at his stable of blue-blooded thoroughbreds, located deep in the south corner of the Woodbine backstretch. Some 40 primped and primed equines and two dozen human staff get ready for their daily routines upon their boss’s arrival.
Year after year the Casse stable has, in his words, operated like a “well oiled machine” and the proof is in the numbers. In 2010, Casse led all Woodbine trainers by wins and purse money earned for the fourth consecutive year. “I am very proud of my Woodbine team,” said Casse. “I never have any worries, everyone who works for me knows their duties and what is expected.”
And expectations continue to be high for one of the top stables in North America as prominent owners such as Canadian Eugene Melnyk and American John Oxley have entrusted their expensive homebreds and purchases with the 50-year-old and his staff.
A life in thoroughbred racing came naturally for Casse whose father Norman Casse operated a successful breeding business in Indiana before moving to one of the horse capitals on the continent – Ocala, Florida. One of the most vivid memories that Casse has with his father is a trip in a horse van they took to see the legendary Secretariat win the Kentucky Derby, in 1973.
Born in Indianapolis, Indiana on Valentine’s day, Casse was barely a teenager and running his father’s Cardinal Hill Farm in Ocala, Florida, and learning the tricks of training. By the time he was 18, the youngster achieved his trainer’s license and, that same year, won his first race at Keeneland racecourse in Lexington, Kentucky.
Within 10 more years, Casse led all trainers at the 1988 Churchill Downs spring meeting, setting a record for number of winners at 29. He later went on to lead all trainers at Turfway Park in Florence, Kentucky four times.
It was not just training that piqued Casse’s interest, however, and in the 1990’s he took over as manager and trainer of operations for Harry Mangurian’s massive Mockingbird Farm in Ocala. It was during his years with Mangurian that Casse began to race horses regularly at Woodbine including the 1999 champion two-year-old colt Exciting Story, who went on to win the 2001 Metropolitan Mile (GI). With Mockingbird, Casse excelled at preparing young horses for sales and the races and selling them for profit. It was a vastly successful venture until Mangurian dispersed much of his bloodstock in 1999 and 2000.
After three years as manager of Sez Who Racing, Mark opened up his own training complex, Moonshadow Farm in Ocala, with his wife Tina. He built up an impressive client base that included the blueblooded horses of Eugene Melnyk (who purchased the Mockingbird property and re-named it Winding Oaks) and Woodford Racing LLC, a syndicate run by Bill Farish. Casse won his first Sovereign Award for champion trainer in 2006.
In 2007, he guided Eugene Melnyk’s Sealy Hill to win in the Woodbine Oaks and ultimately a Horse of the Year championship. He collected his second of three consecutive Sovereign Awards thanks to the big daughter of Point Given. Casse embarked on 2011 with more than 1200 victories to his credit and just as much enthusiasm, if not more, for what could be in store. Oxley, who won the 2001 Kentucky Derby with Monarchos, armed the stable with four youngsters in 2010 and three of them became stakes horses including Canadian champion two-year-old filly Delightful Mary.
This spring, Casse bought several more prospects for Oxley who has upped his interest in racing at Woodbine. “Mr. Oxley was very impressed with Woodbine last year and wants be more involved,” said Casse. “We have more for him now so the pressure is on us now. But pressure is not having the good horses in the barn, it’s having no horses.”
Between Casse, his son Norman and assistants David Taylor and Paul Lehmann, the first order of business each morning is to inspect any horse that is racing or working that particular morning or did so the previous day. “We will jog them around the shed or outside of the barn to see how they are doing,” said Casse. “That can be 20-25 horses each morning so it takes some time.”
With the rest of the daily work schedule in everyone’s hands, Casse heads over to the grandstand of Woodbine by 6 a.m. and sets up shop with his computer and binoculars. “I sit across from the eighth pole and I have each horse jog toward me,” said Casse. “Every rider has a radio so that if there is something that I don’t like I can contact each of them. We’ve also avoided some accidents with loose horses on the track with the radios.”
Much like sitting in a control tower at the airport, Casse guides his charges through their paces, watching how they start out their gallops or works and how they pull up afterwards. “I have a spreadsheet that I started compiling eight or nine years ago where I have the training schedule for every horse, which is often around 80 runners. At the end of each day I get report from my vet and a report from my assistants and spend a few hours inputting all that information.”
On his lighter days of the week when the stable is not racing, Casse will visit T & T Training Centre in Loretto, Ontario where he has another group of horses getting ready for the track. “I don’t really have a true day off, but I try and spend one morning a week, usually Sunday, at home with the family. Casse is the father of seven children including an adopted son with Tina, who is a registered nurse and an integral part of his racing team.”
Casse believes his success has come from his recruitment of his staff, some of which have been with him for many years. “I have one fellow who has been with me for 32 years,” said Casse, whose previous assistants have included Greg de Gannes and Ricky Griffith, now successful trainers at Woodbine. The trainer also wants to make sure his owners have an enjoyable time with their horses from the day the training begins to race day. “I try to tell it the way it is,” said Casse. “Mr. Farish once said to me, “promise less, deliver more”. I try to be realistic with my owners. It’s their money and their horses and they need to be happy so I try to make sure they are involved.”
Casse has had a lot of success picking out horses at auctions too, with millionaires Financingavailable ($5,000) and Jambalaya ($2,500) being two of those he selected for other owners. “Our goals are to make successful runners for Mr. Oxley, Mr. Melnyk and all my owners. That is first and foremost. But of course, I would love to win the Queen’s Plate, Breeders’ Cup races and the Kentucky Derby.”
Casse has won every top Canadian-bred race except the Plate and hopes that his 2011 prospects, Enduring Star, owned by West Point Thoroughbreds, Strike Oil, owned by Oxley, Roxy Gap, a Melnyk-bred and perhaps Hippolytus are major players. “I remember Mr. Mangurian used to tell me, “this game is about winning and losing but there are a lot of things “in-between’: there can be a lot of fun getting there with the people you are with.”