Trainer Mark Casse has long been a fixture at the Sovereign Awards ceremony for Canada’s leading trainer, winning eight times. Now, he joins the Eclipse Award ceremony as a finalist for North American’s outstanding trainer of 2016.
Casse’s horses made more than $17.9 million in North America last year, placing him third by earnings behind trainers Chad Brown and Todd Pletcher, with a tally that shortchanged him to some extent. Casse won races in America and Canada last year, but also in Britain, when his star grass mare Tepin traveled to Royal Ascot for the Group 1, $856,300 Queen Anne Stakes. Those earnings are not included in his North American total.
Although Tepin fell a half-length short of defending her title in the Breeders’ Cup Mile in 2016 at Santa Anita – a race she won by 2 1/4 lengths at Keeneland in 2015 –she performed valiantly in defeat with her wide runner-up finish to Tourist. She, like Casse, is a finalist for year-honor honors, one of three eligible to win for champion turf female of 2016.
Despite Tepin’s defeat, Casse didn’t leave Santa Anita without a Breeders’ Cup trophy. Classic Empire took the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile for Casse, becoming the leading finalist for outstanding 2-year-old male of 2016 and the early favorite for the 2017 Kentucky Derby.
Casse finished 2016 with 26 graded stakes victories in North America, including eight Grade 1 stakes victories. Besides Classic Empire’s Breeders’ Cup victory, other Grade 1 scores included a dead-heat win from Pretty City Dancer in the Spinaway at Saratoga; a score from Victory to Victory in the Natalma at Woodbine; a wire-to-wire triumph by Catch a Glimpse in the Belmont Oaks Invitational; a prestigious turf victory from World Approval in the United Nations; victories from Tepin in the Coolmore Jenny Wiley and Ricoh Woodbine Mile; and a victory in the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland for Classic Empire in the race preceeding his Breeders’ Cup triumph.
Besides his 2017 Kentucky Derby aspirations for Classic Empire, Casse also has a top prospect for the 2017 Kentucky Oaks in 14 Hands Winery Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies runner-up Valadorna.
Casse, 55, was inducted in the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 2016.
|Trainer Mark Casse has an enviable hand of sophomores aiming toward the Kentucky Derby trail, so one would imagine when another pops up with an eye-catching performance, he has the conditional temperance to not hyperbolize it. Such would be the case with John C. Oxley’s Takeoff, who stepped up at third asking to graduate with style — and speed — on Dec. 26 for the identical connections of champion 2-year-old-elect Classic Empire.
Breaking from the rail after a lengthy reluctant loader-incited gate delay, the dark bay son of Arch broke aggressively and never relented, holding his advantage by at least a length throughout and turning back Donegal Racing’s highly regarded Arklow, from the meet-leading Brad Cox barn, in the stretch to post a length victory under Florent Geroux. The Kentucky-bred finished up the mile and 70-yard event — his first attempt around two turns — in 1:43.87, which was nearly a second quicker than Klaravich Stables and William H. Lawrence’s Tom Amoss-trained Shareholder Value needed to defeat allowance juveniles two races prior at the same trip.
“He’s what I like to buy. He’s a beautiful, well-made horse,” Casse said. “When we saw him (at auction), I told Mr. Oxley that I really liked him and wanted to try hard to get him. He came out of that and we had a few little issues here and there. Then he trained well, but not great, going into Keeneland (a third-place debut on Oct. 15 going six furlongs), which I thought was a very good effort. Like a lot of our horses, he settled and came with a nice run that day. I don’t know why he didn’t run better his second start (finishing fourth in a one-turn Churchill Downs mile on Nov. 13), but maybe he was just still learning.
“This race was good,” Casse continued. “It was a nice card with what looked like some good 2-year-olds, so I was quite surprised that we were able to run a second faster. He set a decent pace and I really liked how he was able to quicken, kept running and galloped out really nicely. I thought all along that maybe his best races were on the turf, but given the way he ran, he deserves another shot on the dirt.”
Rarely one to become too adrenalized about a single good performance, Casse’s dispositional restraint could mean a more conservative route for the $550,000 Ocala Breeders’ Sales March 2016 graduate.
“You have to be impressed by the time, but I’d like to see it twice,” he explained. “I won’t get too excited yet. There’s a chance we may look at the (Grade III $200,000) Lecomte (Stakes on Jan. 21), but probably a better chance of an allowance race.”
After a lone victory and five placings in the barn’s first 18 starts at the Fair Grounds meet, the Casse barn is heating up noticeably, sporting a 15-6-4-0 record from Dec. 22 through New Year’s Day.
“You never like to lose, obviously,” he said. “We’ve been through it before and sometimes things go your way. What I do really like about the Fair Grounds is — like I said — we tend to have our horses settle and run and you don’t have to be on the lead turning for home to win the race.”