When I first met Mark Casse I thought things might not go well.
Casse is on top of the thoroughbred horse world.
He has won multiple Sovereign awards as Ontario’s leading trainer.
I knew his reputation as a good horseman and a great ambassador of the sport.
So what could go wrong with our meeting? Lots.
That meeting happened two years ago.
It wasn’t a great time for horse racing in Ontario.
The province had just terminated the Slots At Racetracks Program (SARP).
As a result of the cancellation of SARP, the Woodbine Entertainment Group announced that the 153rd running of the Queen’s Plate in 2012 might be the last.
Horse racing in Ontario would be over.
The government asked three former ministers, John Wilkinson, Elmer Buchanan and myself, to meet with the industry and provide some advice.
We met with a lot of people. Most of them were not particularly happy.
At some point, Mark Casse sat down before us.
Mark is an American.
Many of his clients are wealthy Americans.
It seemed to me his presentation might be an embodiment of everything the critics of racing claim.
After all, why should Ontario taxpayers pay to support a hobby for rich Americans?
Turned out I was wrong.
Mark started his presentation by saying we shouldn’t worry about his future.
People at the top of the racing world can ply their trade at lots of tracks.
He went on to say his clients would be fine if horse racing ended in Ontario. Horses can move.
He asked us to focus our attention on the people who would suffer.
He talked about the exercise riders, hot walkers and grooms who would be out of a job if racing ended.
These are folks who can’t simply follow the horses.
Their livelihood depends on Ontario horse racing.
Mark didn’t talk about purses and races.
He spoke about the skill, dedication and passion of all the people who make a backstretch work.
He called them a family.
My colleagues and I went away from that meeting impressed with the concern the top folks in racing have for the people who love horses, but will never be in a win photo.
The province found a way to support the racing industry post-SARP. It wasn’t easy.
It took long, hard work from a lot of people in the horse racing industry and the unwavering support of Premier Kathleen Wynne, but the industry is now moving forward on a better footing.
Last Sunday, Mark was, once again, saddling his best three-year-olds to take a shot at winning the 155th running of the Queens Plate.
Despite his impressive record in other stakes races, the 50 Guineas that come with Canada’s greatest race have eluded him. Until this year.
Back in the dark days of 2012 not a lot of people were willing to gamble on the future of Ontario bred racehorses.
Ontario owner/trainer John Ross took a chance and bought a good-looking, Ontario bred filly from the yearling sale for a mere $5,500.
He named her after his granddaughter, Lexie Lou.
Turned out it was a good investment.
Lexie Lou won for John Ross as a two-year-old and last Sunday she thrilled thousands at Woodbine as she won again for her new owner, Gary Barber and trainer – you guessed it — Mark Casse.
Some might say this was Mark Casse’s greatest achievement.
But I believe his best performance was in that boardroom two years ago.