Mark Casse hardly remembers a time when he did anything else but ponder a pedigree, size up a horse’s conformation, and saddle one up. And after 38 years of this, he’s become a major player in the horse racing world with a string of stables around the continent.
During one September weekend in 2014, his Conquest Harlanate and Conquest Typhoon both earned berths to the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita during Win and You’re In races at Woodbine Racetrack the same day – and Casse officially became North America’s leading conditioner of 2-year-olds, edging perennial leader Todd Pletcher.
In 2014, he was the sixth leading trainer in North America, and breathing down the necks of Steve Asmussen and Jerry Hollendorfer. At one point, he sat fourth. Every year has been better than the next, but it all started with father Norman, who wasn’t born intothe racing business but was bitten by the bug after a random sighting of a horse farm.
The family business had been selling fire equipment, but Norman began to buy and sell horses from a 12-acre farm in Indiana. Casse was born on Valentine’s Day, 1961 in Indianapolis, where he mucked stalls in the subzero temperatures of an Indiana winter . When the family pulled up stakes to move to Ocala to form the Cardinal Hill Stable, young Casse’s career was set. “It’s the only thing I’ve ever known,” Casse said. “My dad says that if it doesn’t whinny, then I don’t know anything about it.”
Within six years, he was running his father’s farm. From the time he was 10, Casse knew he wanted to be a horse trainer. He’d already been reading pedigree pages of sales catalogues. (His father, Norman, retired in 2006 as chairman of the board of the Ocala Breeders’ Sales after more than 40 years up to his knees in the industry.) Seeing Secretariat win the 1973 Kentucky Derby after a trip to Louisville from Florida in his father’s horse van, was the clincher. Casse had found his life niche.
The experience put him over the top. He was 12. “It was one of my greatest moments,” he said. “When the horses ran by, it felt like an earthquake,” he once said. “It gave me chills all over.” He could hardly see the race from his vantage point on the first floor, but he was there with his dad. “He has
always been my idol,” Casse said.
It’s still giving him chills. And never less so from the days he charted his career path. He had been running Cardinal Hill and overseeing about 30 to 40 horses, since he was 15, but got a trainer’s licence when he was 17 in Massachusetts – the only state in North America where he could get a trainer’s
licence at that age - and won three races on the fair circuit.
At 18, with his training licence firmly in his mitt, Casse won his first race as a trainer at Keeneland with Joe’s Coming – his first starter - on April 14, 1979. It was memorable. The horse ran in a $5,000 claiming race, but when the rider of the pacesetter misjudged the finish line and pulled the horse up, Casse’s
charge was in full flight and won by a nose.
Casse’s later wins were more straightforward. First stakes win? Amalie won the 1979 Indian Maid at Sportsman’s Park in Chicago. First graded stakes win? Raja’s Shark won the 1984 Jamaica (G3) at Belmont Park. First Grade 1 win? Exciting Story, winning the 2001 Metropolitan Mile in New York.
A career highlight came in 1988 when Casse won the Churchill Downs spring meet with a record 29 wins. He’s also been leading trainer at Turfway Park in Kentucky four times . For two years he worked as a private trainer for Calumet Farms.
During the 1990s, Casse took over as private trainer and general manager of operations for Harry T. Mangurian’s enormous Mockingbird Farm, which at one time had 900 horses in the Ocala area. (Mangurian had founded the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company.) While there, Casse showed a knack for preparing horses for sales and making a profit with them.
While training for Mangurian, he acquired End Sweep for $250,000. The son of Forty Niner ended up winning the Highlander Stakes at Woodbine while a 3-year-old. Retired to stud in 1995 at Mockingbird, End Sweep became a world-record sire and champion sire in his second and third seasons before being sold for a reported $20-million to Japanese breeders.
Casse also brought Mangurian’s Exciting Story to Woodbine, too, where he won the Swynford Stakes as a 2-year-old enroute to being chosen Canada’s champion 2-year-old. It was with Mangurian that Casse first began to dip his toe into Canadian waters.
But in 1999 and 2000, Mangurian dispersed most of his stock, and the Ocala farm was purchased by a Canadian pharmaceutical tycoon, Eugene Melnyk, who renamed it Winding Oaks. Casse’s life had to change again: he spent three years as manager of Sez Who Racing, which had farms in Florida and New York State. Afterwards, he opened up his own training complex, Moonshadow Farm in Ocala, with his wife Tina as co-pilot.
By 1998, Casse had already drifted to Woodbine in Toronto, was considered a local and trained 19 juvenile winners. He liked the place. The slots at racetrack program had just started up and had an immediate effect on purses. The facility was world-class. And with racing in one spot for eight or nine months of the year, Casse enjoyed sleeping in his own bed every night.
He started building up a strong client list: Melnyk signed up. So did Bob Wilson and Charles LaLoggia.
In 2002, Casse won his first training title at Woodbine, with 69 wins, and a career-high $3.8-million in earnings, while teaming up with jockey Patrick Husbands. A couple of his stakes wins came with Added Edge, chosen Canada’s top 2-year-old. He also won four races in one day on Aug. 16.
What he really wanted to do, however, was to win the really big races. After his training career stalled somewhat during the early 2000s, Bill Farish, Jr., general manager of Lane’s End Farm, encouraged him to stick with it. He, too, was enthused by Woodbine’s purse structure. In 2005, Farish created the Woodford Racing partnership, had Casse use his considerable talents picking out yearlings – for never more than $75,000 – with the aim of attracting as many people into the sport as possible as owners.
“I was labelled as a good 2-year-old trainer but not someone who could develop a horse,” Casse said. “But Bill said I could go out and buy the horses, train them for races like the Queen’s Plate and not have to worry about selling them. I had always dreamed about doing that.” From the first batch of yearlings came stakes winners Legal Move, Sprung (won the 2006 Natalma as a 48 to 1 shot) and Silky Smooth. Woodford Racing’s Turf War gave Casse his first win in a $1-million race when he won the Delta Jackpot in a dead heat.
And Melnyk, who had bought Mangurian’s farm, also gave Casse horses to train. It put Casse in a new position: he had always sold horses he trained. Now he could afford to keep them and race them.
Finally, in 2006, Casse realized a dream: he made it to the Kentucky Derby with Bill Farish’s Seaside Retreat, a talented horse with an attitude. Seaside Retreat finished 10th of 20. Seaside Retreat started something else: Casse’s oldest son, Norman, named for his grandfather, had never shown a lot of interest in the racing game until he accompanied his father to this Derby. Now, Norman is an assistant to Mark, handling stables in the United States, notably Kentucky.
That same year, Casse also won the $500,000 Woodbine Oaks for the first time with Kimchi, a filly owned by a couple of New Yorkers. In all, Casse won 11 stakes at Woodbine that year.
LaLoggia, a renowned stock picker and author from New York State, also helped Casse win his first Sovereign Award in 2006. LaLoggia’s Skip Code won the 2006 Grey Stakes at Woodbine, and then gave the financial analyst his first start in the Breeders’Cup.
The following year – when Casse enjoyed his best season to date with 13 stakes wins and almost $5.8- million in winnings – he swept the Natalma Stakes at Woodbine with three entries, Clearly Foxy (a 17 to 1 shot owned by Overbrook Farms), Nite In Rome (owned by Bill Farish) and LaLoggia’s Lickety Lemon.
Casse’s benches were deep. LaLoggia’s Officer Cherie was scratched from the Natalma and went on to win the Mazarine Stakes.
From Melnyk came Sealy Hill and Marchfield, winner of the $500,000 Breeders Stakes, third jewel in Canada’s Triple Crown. Sealy Hill, still one of Casse’s favourites because of her ebullient consistency, became the first (and only) filly to win the Triple Tiara in Canada. She had already won the G3 Bourbonette Stakes in Kentucky, but continued on to finish second in the G1 E.P. Taylor Stakes and the G2 Canadian Stakes at Woodbine against older females.
That season, Sealy Hill was chosen Canada’s champion 3-year-old filly, top female turf mare, and Horse of the Year. In 2008, the feisty Sealy Hill finished a close second in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf.
In 2008, Casse scored career win No. 1,000 at Woodbine on Aug. 9 with maiden Laragh. He’s marching on, relentlessly. To the end of 2014, he’s won 1,794 races and horses he’s trained have earned almost $93-million.
At home in Canada in 2011, he had “a crazy good year,” smashing the record for most wins by a trainer when he chalked up 119 in a season, overtaking a 1995 record of 89 wins set by Frank Passero Jr. That year, outside the country, Casse staged a major upset in the Stephen Clark Stakes at Churchill Downs with 7-year-old Canadian-bred longshot Pool Play, which had returned to the track after a long absence with injuries. In North America, Casse’s horses topped $7.8-million in earnings (seventh on the continent), winning 140 races.
He’d been seventh in North America the previous three seasons, and is now a six-time Sovereign Award winner. But it’s all come with a changing of the guard of new clients, all of them movers and shakers.
Woodford’s partnership dissolved as the horses ended their four-year-old seasons. But Casse still didn’t have that big horse yet, the U.S. Triple Crown contender. Two of his former assistant trainers, Kiaran McLaughlin and Tom Albertrani, did move on with spectacular horses. “They went on to the next level and I just felt like I wasn’t,” Casse said.
Enter John Oxley, an oil tycoon from Tulsa, Okla., who also has homes in Florida, Kentucky and Colorado. Oxley, impressed by Woodbine and hearing good reports about Casse, initially sent the trainer some homebreds. But they all had issues. Finally, early in 2010, Oxley told Casse: “I wish you could have some better horses from me.”
Casse suggested they go to a couple of sales in California. There, he bought four young horses, including Delightful Mary for $500,000. Months later, Delightful Mary went on to finish third in the $1-million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf race and was chosen top 2-year-old filly in Canada.
Another purchase, Strike Oil, won the Coronation Futurity at Woodbine by the end of the season. In 2011, eight of Casse’s nominees to the Natalma, a Win and You’re In race for the Breeders’ Cup, were owned by Oxley, who quickly became Casse’s biggest client. With him, Casse started to climb Mount Everest. Not only did Oxley want to win another Kentucky Derby (He scored with Monarchos in 2001), but he’s a lover of Woodbine and would like to win a Queen’s Plate, too.
He’s followed the Casse tradition of buying up the best Canadian-breds he can find. One year, Oxley spent $1.5-million on Canadian-breds alone. Casse trained his second Canadian Horse of the Year with Uncaptured in 2012, a $290,000 purchase at the Keeneland September sale in 2011. Uncaptured scorched Woodbine with four consecutive wins, three of them stakes, then won the Iroquois and the Jockey Club Stakes in Kentucky. He was also chosen Canadian champion 2-year-old.
With such brilliance, one oddsmaker in Las Vegas made him an early favourite for the 2013 Kentucky Derby, but he never made it. Instead, he won the Prince of Wales, the second jewel of Canada’s Triple Crown. At four, he finished a close third, beaten only a half length by Palice Malice, the top aged horse at the time, in the Gulfstream Park Handicap. He retired in 2014 with $1,065,147 in earnings.
Oxley also enjoyed Dixie Strike’s rallies in 2012, when she won the Florida Oaks as the winterbook favourite for the Queen’s Plate in which she finished third, then won the Prince of Wales against colts, too.
Oxley won his second Sovereign Award as top owner in Canada in 2013, having won 27 races and nine stakes races. All stakes were won by different horses, an indication of Oxley’s bench strength: Madly Truly, Delightful Mary, Uncaptured, Dynamic Sky, Spring in the Air, Matador, Northern Passion, Sky Commander, Sky High Lady.
Oxley’s Funny Proposition, trained by Casse, also knocked off two-time Breeders’ Cup Ladies’Classic winner Royal Delta in the Fleur de Lys Stakes at Churchill Downs that year.
Oxley’s Prospective, a $250,000 purchase, won the Tampa Bay Derby and the Ohio Derby and made it to the Kentucky Derby, but clipped heels in the first 100 yards and encountered traffic.
In Canada, at Woodbine, Casse won his seventh consecutive training title in 2013, and eighth overall, with a win total almost three times more than his nearest competitor and 19 stakes victories. He had his career-best year in 2012, ranking 7th in earnings in North America with earnings of $10,234,707 and 129 wins. He was ranked in the top five graded stakes winners.
Other clients flocked to Casse, upon recommendation. Casse’s association with Gary Barber, chairman and chief executive officer of Metro-Goldwyn Mayer in Los Angeles, has been entirely fruitful. Barber’s talented Delegation finished third for Casse in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.
Casse finally achieved a life-long dream in 2014, when he won the Queen’s Plate with the filly, Lexie Lou after being 0 for 17 in the race. Although he had three entries in the Plate, Barber had actually spotted Lexie Lou finishing behind his own filly, Zensational Bunny, earlier in the season and suggested Casse buy her for him. Casse removed her blinkers, got her to relax by sending her to a farm before the Plate, and the filly dominated. “It’s been a long road,” Casse said.
Barber also owns a majority interest in Canadian-bred Kaigun, who has been playing at the top of the G1 level since he switched to turf: second to Wise Dan in the Maker’s Mark at Keeneland, finishing a length back of Wise Dan in the Woodford Reserve at Churchill, and finishing second in the Manhattan at Belmont Park. He finished second in the $1-million Woodbine Mile, in Casse’s first attempt at the race.
Kaigun scored a major coup for Barber and Casse when he stormed from last place to win the $250,000 Seabiscuit Handicap at Del Mar in November, 2014. Jockey Corey Nakatani had to angle him widest in the stretch and he inhaled the lot. Kaigun was a $37,000 purchase at Canada’s premier yearling sale in 2011. He’s earned $964,220 in his career, for another of Casse’s top owners, his wife, Tina.
Barber’s Sisterly Love earned honours as champion older female in Canada in 2013, but upset heavily favoured Emollient in the Doubledogdare Stakes at Keeneland in the spring of 2014.
Then along came Ernie Semersky and Dory Newell in 2012 and Casse’s life hasn’t been the same since. Semersky, a venture capitalist, futures trader and Porsche dealer from Chicago, caught the racing bug at the Kentucky Derby, and bought a horse, Gunderman, which finished last in his first start.
Semersky met Casse at Churchill Downs on July 8, 2012, and, according to Semersky, they just clicked. He appreciated Casse’s loyalty and integrity. And they set about to build a racing dynasty.
In two years, Semersky has gone from owning one horse to 110, aided by Casse’s expert eye at spotting promising, pedigreed yearlings. Semersky’s end game is all-out: he intends to not only build a racing stable, but to build stallions. Thus, he must buy the best bloodlines possible and it’s costly.
With Semersky behind him, as well as Oxley, Barber and others, Casse’s status at yearling sales has changed. He started as a boy, going to the Keeneland sales and bought his first horse at age eight. He started by buying out of Book 5 and 6, then 3 and 4. In 2014, he bought out of Book 1, and was one of the sales’ most active buyers at that level.
Conquest Stable, the nom de plume of Semersky and Newell’s racing venture, purchased 12 yearlings at the Keeneland September sale for $3.7-million. In fact, Conquest Stables and Casse dominated the record-setting second day of the sale, buying five of the top 10 highest-priced yearlings.
The first one they tagged was a Canadian-bred Distorted Humor colt for $500,000. They also spent $320,000 to buy a half-sister to My Conquestadory, one of Conquest’s first stable stars, having defeated colts in the Summer Stakes at Woodbine, and then winning the Alcibiades
Stakes at Keeneland in spectacular fashion, after being blocked and steadied behind a wall of horses around the final turn. My Conquestadory, fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, was a $240,000 purchase.
Compare this to 2012, when Conquest bought three for $325,000. In 2013, Conquest purchased 24