The Mark Casse touch seemed to be everywhere at this Sovereign Award night, during a chilly wind-blown evening at Woodbine.
The 53-year-old trainer played a role in nine of the 20 awards handed out after the wonderful and courageously bare-kneed bagpipers had left (jockey Eurico Rosa da Silva threw his hands over his ears as the squeaky musicians marched solemnly by), and seemed unstoppable.
To get a handle on all of this, consider:
Casse won his seventh Sovereign Award as top trainer in the past nine years, including the past four;
He trained the champion top male, Dynamic Sky, winner of two races last year, but one of them being the Red Smith Handicap in the United States;
The Casse clan also scored the top female turf award with little Lexie Lou, and this was a first. No Queen’s Plate winner had won this category before;
Of course, Queen’s Plate winner, Lexie Lou was chosen champion 3-year-old filly, although surprisingly not unanimously, taking 157 votes to 35 for Executive Allure, winner of the Passing Mood and Jammed Lovely Stakes, 25 for Paladin Bay, the gutsy filly that won the Selene Stakes over Casse’s My Conquestadory in an upset, and 25 for Sweater Weather (and don’t Canadians get this name), winner of the Eternal Search and La Lorgnette Stakes;
Casse also trained Hillaby, the daughter of his Horse of the Year mare Sealy Hill, to honours as champion female sprinter after she convincingly won the Bessarabian Stakies;
One of Casse’s main clients, John Oxley, won as owner of the year, and two of the other three candidates (Gary Barber and Conquest Stables) are also major players in Casse’s stable;
Casse’s Conquest Typhoon won the award as Canada’s top 2-year-old colt, in a lively contest over Casse’s other good colt, Conquest Tsunami;
Casse’s intrepid filly with the jagged blaze, Conquest Harlanate, was champion 2-year-old filly, after winning the Natalma and the Mazarine, and a trip to the Breeders’ Cup. (Conquest’s Ernie Semersky made a couple of trips to the stage, donning his bright red jacket, beaming with his 35,000 “likes” on his Facebook page in North America, and another 20,000 in Europe. Casse is fortunate that Semersky picked horse racing. He had also considered getting into NASCAR and Formula One racing. Horse racing seemed most fun. )
And what topped off Casse’s night? He said earlier that he’d be shocked if Lexie Lou didn’t win Horse of the Year. And she won, with 156 votes over crack sprinter Calgary Cat and the talented mare, Deceptive Vision.
If you want to stretch Casse’s influence to 10 awards, then count in Patrick Husbands, who won his eighth Sovereign Award as Canada’s top jockey. No Canadian jockey has won more. Casse and Husbands have marched to the top together. On the stage, Husbands, admittedly nervous, referred to Casse as “my dad,” who “made me a man” and put him on many, many live horses. Husbands won Casse’s first Queen’s Plate with Lexie Lou. Husband’s unprecedented eighth Sovereign came in 2014 by winning 170 races and $9,682,029 in earnings, about $1.8-million more than second-placed Luis Contreras (and don’t forget the $111.589 Husbands earned in the United States.)
So yes, Casse was a regular visitor to the stage, but one of his most memorable trips was his first one, which he took with 12-year-old son Colby to accept the top trainer award. “I’m very fortunate that I get to wake up every day and do what I love,” Casse said. He didn’t do it by himself, he acknowledged. Without his owners, he wouldn’t be where he is. Nor could he accomplish what he has without wife Tina, who handles many logistics.
“Casse Racing is a big team,” he said. At Woodbine, he has David Adams and Kathryn Sullivan minding the tents. And then Casse’s voice began to break as he talked about his recent losses: He lost Conquest Two Step, a horse Casse said is one of the best horses he has trained. Last December, he finished a half- length behind the splendid Shared Belief in the Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita and then he won the Palos Verdes Stakes, defeating Secret Circle.
“It hurts,” Casse said. They called him Guacamole on the backside.
Another backdrop to Casse’s big Sovereign scores was the recent loss of a dear friend, Mike Anderson, who worked for Casse for 35 years, from the time he started as a trainer. “He was my partner,” Casse said. Mike, better known as Grumpy, was often critical of Casse and not afraid to show it. “My biggest critic,” Casse said. “He gave me some tough times. But he loved me and I loved him.”
He was Colby’s buddy. Anderson was always calling Casse in the middle of the night. Once it was to report that he had lost Colby, who he was supposed to be minding. Turns out, Colby had somehow disappeared into the couch cushions. “He was grumpy, but he had the most loving heart,” Casse said.
Unsung heroes and first-timers tended to be the theme of the night. Ivan Dalos, owner of Ami’s Holiday, up for champion 3-year-old male, was attending his first Sovereigns, despite his long history as a breeder. Cindy Pierson Dulay won her first Sovereign as a photographer, although in 2004, she won an Eclipse Award for photography. Dave Briggs won his first Sovereign for the writing category. Scott Jagow, editor in chief of The Paulick Report, won the Digital Visual/Broadcast Award for a four-part video series called the Woodbine Diaries. Saskatchewan-born Sheena Ryan won the award as top apprentice jockey with $1.2-million in earnings. John Unger won his first Sovereign as owner/breeder of Strut the Course, winner of champion older female.
Another Sovereign first-time winner: Calgary Cat made such a huge impression this season that he finished second in the Horse of the Year ballot to Lexie Lou and won the vote to be Canada’s champion male sprinter of 2014. Stephen Chesney, who owns the gelding with Cory Hoffman, says he as a first-time owner in 1992 with Tino Attard, and now, 22 years later, he’s won a Sovereign with Tino’s son, Kevin, as trainer. Chesney/Hoffman think so much of the sport’s unsung heroes, that they brought Calgary Cat’s groom to the Sovereign party. At a time when Employment and Social Development Canada deems backstretch workers as “unskilled,” Chesney said: “We trust our horses to these guys. And they are very skilled people. “ Currently the government is expelling migrant workers deemed “unskilled” from the country if they haven’t found permanent employment in the country. Backstretch work is seasonal.
“I love the first-time winners,” said Mark Samuel, whose Sam-Son Farms has won armloads of Sovereigns and scored a couple more on Friday. (Eye of the Sphinx was Canada’s outstanding broodmare and Sam-Son won the outstanding breeder award for the ninth time, tying Kinghaven Farms and Frank Stronach).
“That’s where the future of our industry is,” Samuel continued. “Greg [Tracy] doesn’t have the same horse power behind him, but he’s had a phenomenal year.” Tracy didn’t win honours as top trainer, but he made the final four with a 39 per cent winning average and won 10 stakes with seven horses from his perch at Northlands Park in Edmonton. And from all of this, the industry has taken courage.
Among them, Jim Lawson, who wears many hats: chairman of the board of governors of the Canadian Football League, interim president and CEO of Woodbine Entertainment, and chief steward of the Jockey Club of Canada. “It’s nice to see new people in the industry,” he told the crowd, just before he announced Horse of the Year.
“It’s been a tough two or three years,” he said. “It’s been difficult for WEG and for the industry in the province, for Fort Erie and the Standardbred industry. Every year, I say: “Be patient.”
“What I love about this industry is the people,” he said. And with this, he astonished everybody by saying he was going to set up office in the coming weeks on Woodbine’s backstretch, not the frontside.
He urged the industry to work together. It’s the only way to move forward, to become leaders not only in the country, but in North America.
On Friday night, the eve of Woodbine’s thoroughbred season opener, Lexie Lou, or at least her trainer, had the last word.
“I’m so proud of Lexie Lou,” Casse said, who hastened to say she wouldn’t be the filly she was without her first trainer, John Ross, and if it wasn’t for owner Gary Barber, who spotted her last spring at Woodbine, Casse wouldn’t have trained her.
The filly brought a certain kind of pressure. “I felt more pressure when she ran because she had so many followers,” Casse said. During her forays into the United States, he felt she represented Canada. He was most proud of her when she finished second to Kentucky Derby winner, California Chrome, in the Hollywood Derby late last year.
For now, Lexie Lou is in Ocala, Florida, “spending some time in the sunshine,” he said. She’s coming back to Canada and will race a couple of times here during the summer as she tries to make her way to the Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland.