Indelible Mark: Trainer Casse soaking in the year of a lifetime

Trainer Mark Casse sat for a portrait in Casse Racing’s Barn No. 36 at Churchill Downs on April 27, 2015.
Trainer Mark Casse sat for a portrait in Casse Racing’s Barn No. 36 at Churchill Downs on April 27, 2015. McClatchy Newspapers

Mark Casse never did have a Plan B.

There was no crossroads moment of what career path he would ultimately set upon, no net of another livelihood to catch him if he ever abandoned the tightrope that is his chosen profession. Where his schoolmates indulged in typical childhood mind candy of comic books and cartoons, Casse’s boyhood self studied the Daily Racing Form like it held the key to life itself within its pages.

There is no moment when Casse can recall wanting to be anything but a horse trainer. If the rock bottom moments of Thoroughbred racing can try faith and sanity, its highs can restore all kinds of hope. And at 10 years of age, Casse knew — for better or worse — he wanted all that came with life in the industry.

Which is why the 54-year-old trainer stood on the Keeneland track Oct. 31, his emotions holding his words captive as his son and chief assistant, Norman, led the filly Tepin into the winner’s circle following her victory in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Mile. He was in the midst of two of the best days of his career, the kind of days he will point to the next time someone asks why he signed up for a life of year-round 14-hour days.

He did it because he couldn’t have a year like he did in 2015 otherwise, in which he and his unshakable eldest son proved their program could produce horses among the world’s best.

So in that moment on the track where he had saddled his first winner 36 years earlier, Casse’s whirlwind thoughts landed square in his throat.

“I never felt that I was better than anybody else, but I also believe no one is better than us,” Casse said from his Moonshadow Farm in Florida in November. “And maybe that’s why the Breeders’ Cup was big in so many ways. That was proof that we could train not just at the level of the top end of Canada, but (be) one of the top trainers in the U.S., and we proved we could beat the best in the world.

“That was important for me. It goes back to the fact that I was wanting this since I was 8 years old, 10 years old. So it’s been a long time. The emotions you saw after Tepin was a lot of things.”

Casse’s footing beside the industry’s best has never been more firm. After coming into this year’s Breeders’ Cup with an 0-for-23 mark in the World Championships, the Indiana-born conditioner exited with two blankets of flowers as Catch a Glimpse triumphed in the Juvenile Fillies Turf on Oct. 30 and 4-year-old Tepin showed her male rivals how it’s done with her 2  1/4-length victory in the Mile.

With the 2015 season coming to a close, Casse sits fourth among trainers in North America in earnings ($13,696,789), graded stakes victories (17) and stakes wins (31) — career bests on the first two fronts. Tepin is all but certain to become his first Eclipse Award winner when the votes are counted for champion turf female. Her three Grade I triumphs are among the five top-level victories Casse Racing boasted this year — equal to the number of Grade I races he had won in the previous 35 years combined.

If you have stock that consistently runs in top level races, if you can develop young horses, and if your stable can translate from one circuit to another, you can rightfully call yourself one of the major outfits to be reckoned with. For years, Casse owned bits and parts of those equations, but never all of them together.

There were meet titles in the 1980s at Turfway Park and Churchill Downs. There was his time helming Harry Mangurian’s massive Mockingbird Farm operation until its dispersal in 2000. And since the early 2000s, Casse has been the kingpin of Canadian racing, winning seven Sovereign Awards as Canada’s outstanding trainer.

What has made the Casse barn one that can now ship across the country and be a multi-divisional threat is the influx of clients like John Oxley, Gary Barber and the flamboyant Ernie Semersky of Conquest Stables giving him the stock and resources to flex both his horsemanship and pedigree insight.

There was also some internal determination to dig out of being pigeon holed as “just” a good trainer of 2-year-olds who thrives in the Great White North.

“We’ve assembled a really good team. We have great owners that purchase really good horses for us and they let us do what needs to be done,” said 32-year-old Norman Casse, his father’s top assistant in the states. “But at the same time, when you’re only training 2-year-olds and you’re selling them after they win, which is what my dad used to do about 15 years ago, then yeah, you’re a good 2-year-old trainer. And, yeah, we only dominated Woodbine because Woodbine was the only place we were at.

“Now we’ve conquered that now we’re here in Kentucky. We went out to California; we won training titles at Keeneland, which is a hard thing to do. We won five Grade Is this year and … we were about a head away from winning eight, which is incredible to think. You have to run in those races to win them, and we are just now starting to get to that point. It’s just a matter of time.”

About four decades, to be exact.

‘My life was horses and racing’

Most of North America’s major stakes take place on Saturdays. So depending on how one’s equine protégés perform, Sunday can be a day of satisfied reflection or the start of a regrouping process.

The seventh day of the week was always the worst for Mark Casse during his formative years, however. It was the one day when the Daily Racing Form didn’t publish.

“What was funny was later on in life I was general manager for Harry Mangurian’s Mockingbird Farm, and when I was about 12 or so, he had a bunch of good horses,” Casse recalled. “And we would talk later on and he would bring up a horse and I’d say, ‘Oh yeah,’ and I’d recite something to him; and he’d be like, ‘How would you know? You must have been like 12 years old?’

“But that’s all I ever did. So horse racing has been my entire life.”

It was also in his pedigree, growing up the son of noted breeder Norman E. Casse, owner of Cardinal Hill Farm in Florida and former chairman of Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co.

When he wasn’t getting the education of a lifetime helping his father run the farm, Casse was studying pedigree pages the way law students prepare for the bar.

He would get his first trainer’s license in Massachusetts at age 17 and won a couple of fair circuit races with a mare named Solid Rocket. Casse’s first official winner, a durable dark bay runner named Joe’s Coming, went into the books a year later at Keeneland in April 1979. But the beyond-his-years aptitude went beyond his ability to handle bloodstock.

When he was 13, his parents divorced, which is life altering enough. With real world consequences hanging over him, Casse made a decision few at any age would have had the conviction to stand by.

He asked his mother if she would let him go so he could go be with his future.

“There was a big question of did I go with my mom or did I go with my dad. And my mom was fighting for me to go with her and she was going to move back to Indiana,” Casse said. “I said to her, ‘Mom, do you love me?’ and she said, ‘I love you more than anything in the world.’

“And I said, ‘If you love me that much, you’ll let me stay with Dad.’ She wasn’t just going to take me away from my dad, she was going to take me away from my life, and my life was horses and racing. And that day she said ‘OK,’ and she let me stay with my dad. That’s how much she loved me that she would let me do that. Had that not happened, who knows what I would be doing today?”

What Casse did not want to do was push any of his seven children into following his career path. It’s a life of sacrifice, and to commit to it requires absolute love and devotion to the sport.

Which is why a young Norman Casse figured to be the least likely to own that role.

Unlikely protégé

It is a bit astonishing to watch Norman Casse taking sets out before morning light, watch his hands smooth a charge’s unruly forelock and his cool eyes beat back wavering emotion after major wins and think this was all a Plan B.

“I actually didn’t really like horse racing too much growing up,” the Bellarmine University graduate and Louisville native said. “I think because Dad wasn’t really around and I didn’t get to see him very often because he was off at the races … and when I did see him, I was forced to go to the races. So I didn’t really like it.”

But when you grow up in the home of the Kentucky Derby and your father and both your grandfathers were all horsemen, it stands to reason a racing bug would kick in at some point.

Mark Casse says he could feel Norman’s attitude shift when they ran Seaside Retreat in the 2006 Kentucky Derby. His son counters that — sorry, Dad — he really became “a fanatic overnight” after witnessing Smarty Jones enthrall the nation with his victories in the first two legs of the Triple Crown in 2004.

Either way, by the time he graduated with his business degree from Bellarmine in 2006, Norman Casse realized he wanted to be the guy leading over would-be champions and classic contenders. But the plan was for him to go to Ocala and start running the business side of his father’s operation and, for a couple of miserable months, he stuck to that before having his own life-altering parental conversation.

“Dad was up in Canada, I was in Ocala. I was really depressed. I had moved away from Kentucky. I had no friends. I wasn’t doing what I wanted,” Norman Casse said. “And I kind of had like a nervous breakdown type deal and I sent Dad a text that said ‘I’m not doing this, I’d rather just be a hot walker.’

Added Mark Casse, “I said ‘What do you want to do?’ And he said, ‘I want to be a horse trainer.’ And I said ‘Well why the hell didn’t you say so?’”

With that, Norman Casse said he drove through the night straight to Canada and didn’t take a day off for about a year. His injection of enthusiasm and outside-the-box approach helped him pick up the trade quickly. It is also no coincidence that as Norman became more hands-on in the development of the barn’s stock, Casse Racing started enjoying its most productive years.

“He knows what I’m about and what I want. And he knows that I’m going to do everything possible for our horses to run as good as possible,” Norman Casse said of his father. “I hate being embarrassed, I hate running horses that don’t run well. And I do everything I can on the ground at the barn to make sure that we never embarrass ourselves.”

Mark Casse has said one of his measuring sticks of success is judging “not necessarily how we do at a meet, but how we come out of it.”

His role as father, leader and motivator was put through its most painful test during a span that should have been unadulterated elation.

Great year, brutal year

For eight days, there were constant reminders of why the best moments of the sport have no peer.

On June 6 at Belmont Park, hours before American Pharoah would give a generation of racing fans their “Where were you?” moment when he became the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, Robert Masterson’s Tepin made an honest man out of Norman Casse, who predicted the sweet-faced daughter of Bernstein was going to leave New York a Grade I winner.

Indeed, she earned her first career top-level score when she won the Grade I Just a Game Stakes over the Belmont turf. One week later, her stablemate Noble Bird took the baton and carried it to his own breakout victory in the Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs.

Not 24 hours removed from that celebration of the stable’s depth, the Casse crew was agonizing when barn favorite and Kentucky Derby fifth-place finisher Danzig Moon suffered a fatal breakdown in the Plate Trial Stakes at Woodbine on June 14.

“It was like they threw me off the cliff and I didn’t even get a parachute,” Mark Casse said. “It’s been an … interesting year. We lost two of the best horses we’ve ever trained, earlier in the year we lost (Grade II winner) Conquest Two Step, that was a freak accident (after surgery). Then of course Danzig Moon. It was a great year but it was a brutal year as well.”

Which is exactly what racing is. And Mark Casse will never fully walk away from it.

But he will pull back, maybe in a decade or so when he and his wife, Tina, who runs the business side of his operation, decide they really do want to take that trip, have those dinners, live a different sort of life.

By that point, Norman will likely have gone out on his own as a trainer — an inevitable path at this stage — and Casse’s youngest son, Colby, is already talking like a conditioner in the making at age 12.

But first, there is the matter of doing a little bit better than the year before. Among the 100 or so head currently in the Casse string are arguably the best 2-year-olds he’s ever had, led by multiple graded stakes winner Airoforce and his Adonis of a stablemate Conquest Big E.

For the record, Casse’s biggest boyhood goal was that of a Kentucky Derby victory. And he’s already made good on almost every other aspiration his pre-teen self could dream up.

“There have been lots and lots of bumps in the road, and a lot of things that went wrong and a lot of things that went right,” Casse said. “But I’m very fortunate because however they were, it got me to where I am now. And where I’m at is just where I wanted to be.”

Alicia Wincze Hughes: 859-231-1676, @horseracinghl