A pessimist could argue trainer Mark Casse has picked some of the worst possible times to get some of his best 3-year-old runners.
Two years ago, Casse Racing had its first representative in the Preakness Stakes when graded-stakes winner Dynamic Impact finished seventh behind eventual Horse of the Year California Chrome. Last season, the Casse contingent was back in Baltimore taking another swing at the upset role when they sent Grade I-placed Danzig Moon out to a sixth-place run behind eventual Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.
This year, stakes winner Fellowship has the honor of giving his Canadian Hall of Fame trainer a third consecutive entrant in the classic. Because it wouldn’t be a proper venture if there weren’t a beast to run against, unbeaten Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist is serving as this year’s version of Goliath.
“It seems like every year I’m discussing how good these other horses are. The three Preaknesses we’ve been in have been California Chrome, Pharoah and now Nyquist,” said Norman Casse, top assistant to his father. “We’ve definitely been keeping really good company and it’s actually something I’m really proud of. The last three years, I’ve been able to be around some really cool horses and some really cool moments, and I’m grateful to have horses that allow us to be part of these big races.”
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That Casse’s runners keep butting heads with some of the best of their generation is a nod to the barn’s increased presence on racing’s biggest days the last handful of years. Of the six career starters Casse has had in Triple Crown races — including Fellowship’s expected presence Saturday — five have come since 2012, including four in the last two seasons.
It is a statistic representing how high the bar keeps being raised by those who carry the red and white saddle towel of the seven-time Sovereign Award winner. The past year saw Casse notch his first Breeders’ Cup victories — Catch a Glimpse in the Juvenile Fillies Turf and Tepin in the Mile. The former went on to be named Canada’s 2015 Horse of the Year, while Tepin became her trainer’s first Eclipse Award winner. Tepin will start in the Group I Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot on June 14.
A victory in an American classic sits as the next milestone for the Casse operation to grasp.
“I think at this point, considering the training titles and the Breeders’ Cups and the other Grade Is that we’ve won, the next step is to win a Triple Crown race. That’s definitely the goal now,” Norman Casse said. “You go in hoping that your horse runs well under the realization that if Nyquist runs his ‘A’ race, you’re probably not going to beat him. ... And somebody’s got to win if he doesn’t bring his ‘A’ race. We’re happy to have that chance.”
Fellowship represents a bit of a bonus opportunity for Casse Racing. Owned and bred by Fred Brei’s Jack or Better Farm, the son of Awesome of Course was transferred to Casse a couple weeks after the colt’s third-place finish in the Grade I Florida Derby on April 2 when Brei and previous trainer Stanley Gold dissolved their longtime working relationship.
The lightly built chestnut immediately impressed the younger Casse with the way he skipped over his new base at Churchill Downs. Common thinking was, as the 21st horse on the Kentucky Derby leader board, surely a defection in the weeks leading up to the race would allow him into the field.
When all the horses ahead of Fellowship on the Kentucky Derby preference list proved remarkably healthy, a couple of Plan B’s went into action. The 1 3/16-mile Preakness Stakes was tagged as his new target, and Casse, needing something to get the colt fit in the interim, called an audible and saddled Fellowship to a fourth-place finish in the Grade III Pat Day Mile on the Derby undercard.
“We used the Pat Day as kind of like a springboard to get him ready because coming off the Florida Derby, having not had a race since then, you knew you had to do something big with him to get him ready for a race like the Preakness,” Norman Casse said. “We knew he was up against it backing him up to a mile. We knew that wasn’t his style, but that was more getting him ready.”
Fellowship, who has two wins in 12 career starts, has been an honest performer, using his late-running style to finish third in the Grade II Holy Bull and Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes this year to go along with his Florida Derby outing. As a juvenile last season, he made seven starts at distances from 4 1/2 furlongs to 1 1/16 miles.
His new connections are still figuring out where Fellowship will ultimately best fit within their landscape. They’re going to help the process by giving the 30-to-1 Preakness long shot a chance to see where he stands among the best in his class.
“I like to work our good horses together and he was just doing things with our other big horses that indicated that hey, this horse has got some serious talent,” Norman Casse said. “He really, really moves well, he skips over the racetrack. I don’t know exactly what his niche is and what he’s going to be really good at, but when we figure that out, he’s going to be a really good horse.”
What: Second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown
When: 6:45 p.m.
Where: Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Md.
Purse: $1.5 million (Grade I)
Distance: 1 3/16 miles
Favorite: Nyquist (3-5)