By Sue Finley
Recently, 34-year-old Norman Casse, assistant to his father, Mark, announced that come next spring after a decade working for his dad, he will head out on his own. The graduate of Bellarmine University, a private Catholic school in Louisville, Kentucky, is leaving the stable on a high note, after a year capped off by World Approval (Northern Afleet)’s win in the GI Breeders’ Cup Mile, and after watching Tepin (Bernstein), whose career they guided, sell for $8 million at the Fasig-Tipton November Sale. Casse stopped by the Keeneland November sale this week to talk to the TDN’s Sue Finley about his future, and about making his decision.
TDN: Does having the year you’ve had, capped by World Approval’s Breeders’ Cup and the $8 million sale of Tepin, make it harder to walk away from your current position, or easier?
NC: It’s not an easy decision, by any means. It doesn’t make it any harder, because we had a great year last year as well. I think they’re pretty comparable years. It’s just a decision that’s been weighing on me for a long time, and there’s never a right moment. It’s just time to go.
TDN: Tell me about your childhood, and what your introduction to working in racing was?
NC: I’ve been around horses my whole life, but I really resented horse racing because it took time away from grandpa and from dad and (the people) on my dad’s side of the family, like (my uncle) Justin. So I didn’t really like horse racing…and then I fell in love with it, just by growing up in Louisville, coming to the sales, hanging out with dad. I just caught the bug real bad and that’s what got it started. It wasn’t like I got pushed into it, because dad has a lot of kids, and I’m the only one who’s involved, and that’s because I want to be here.
TDN: That’s an interesting point, because obviously, at a young age, and now that you’ve been working in the business, it occurs to you how hard a life this is, and maybe even as you say, how selfish a life it is to the rest of your family.
NC: It’s a very hard life, but it’s so rewarding. I get to do some of the best things because of horse racing. I’ve been to different countries, I’ve been to different states, different venues, and it’s all because of horses. It’s done so much for my family and for me. I don’t resent that any more. I realize what it is and I’m going to try to learn from my family’s mistakes and try to be more around for my family, but at the same time, it is a job that takes a lot of your time.
TDN: Emotionally, too, it’s a difficult life. You guys are riding a high wave right now, but with that comes some real lows as well.
NC: I think I have the perfect attitude for this life because I don’t really get too high and I don’t really get too low. I try to operate right in the middle. I understand things don’t always go your way and I also know that just because you won a Breeders’ Cup doesn’t mean you know everything. If you can keep that attitude, the waves, they don’t affect you nearly as much, I don’t think.
TDN: How often lately do you wake up in the middle of the night and think, `what the heck am I thinking?’
NC: It’s funny. I’m not scared. I’m very confident in what I know and what I believe in and I’m not that scared about doing this. The best way to describe it is: I’ve reached my potential in this job capacity and at this professional level. It’s not that I’m bored, but it’s time to branch off and start doing something new. That’s going to be handling the clients myself, learning how to run a business myself. The horsemanship I’m very confident about. The rest of the stuff should work itself out.
TDN: Tuesday, Joseph O’Brien beat his dad in the Melbourne Cup. By all accounts, Aidan couldn’t have been happier if he’d won the race himself. I feel like that’s the kind of person your dad is also.
NC: I think he’s saying that right now; I don’t necessarily know if he believes it yet. But I think if that time comes, and hopefully if I’m lucky enough to have that type of success where I’m competing against dad, really at a national, high level, and I beat him, I think he’ll realize there’s nothing better for his legacy than my becoming a great trainer as well. He can train all the champions he can, but it’s going to be so much more rewarding if I can follow in his footsteps and do the same thing.
TDN: Is this a decision you guys reached together, or did you have to surprise him with it one day?
NC: He knows the type of personality I have. He knows why I did this. When I first called and told him I wanted to work with horses, I told him, `I don’t want to be a career assistant. I want to be a horse trainer.’ But it’s a difficult conversation to have. As you alluded to, we’re having a lot of success. I think he’s okay.
TDN: Do you ever worry that you’re hurting your dad by leaving?
NC: I do believe that it’s a very selfish decision on my part, and I openly admit that. But at the same time, a lot of guys have had to leave Todd Pletcher, Kiaran McLaughlin, those type of guys had to leave the company that basically made them. I just think it’s the right thing for me. It’s the right thing for the people who look up to me and the people who love me and support me and want me to do this. It’s the right thing for a lot of people.
TDN: You are entering into an age of training where information and technology add new tools to the way you do your job. How different will that job be going forward than the one your dad entered into when he started out?
NC: It’s a completely different ballgame. Dad operates at a level that he probably never dreamed of when he started out in the ’80s, where you can be on a flight to another racetrack and be watching your racehorses running on your phone. We’re very fortunate that we can now operate at different tracks–different countries, really, if we needed to–and operate and perform at a high level. So it’s a lot easier, I think, to manage a stable now.
TDN: And how have things stayed the same, in terms of classic horsemanship?
NC: You still have to be a horseman. I mean, that’s the bottom line. The tools of the trade haven’t changed at all. It’s just the way that you watch, and the way that you communicate. If you don’t know how to train horses and you don’t know how to train winners, you’re not going to be successful. And there are certain qualities that I see that I think help me be a successful horseman.
TDN: When your father started out, he could look down one shedrow at Belmont and see all of his horses. If you’re successful, you’ll get to the point where your horses are spread all over the country and potentially all over the world. How much harder is that to manage?
NC: Technology helps it, but I think the most important thing, and this is what I truly believe in, I’m going to hire people who want to become trainers, who are one day going to branch off from me and hopefully beat me, just as we were talking about earlier. That’s really what you need. You need people who are under you, like my dad has with me, who are not just in it for a paycheck, and they want to win just as badly as I do. If you hire the right people, it doesn’t matter how big of a stable you have. You can manage it and be very successful at it.
TDN: We’re in the day of the big-trainer stable, with more horses concentrated in the hands of fewer people. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
NC: It’s happening because that’s what the market is dictating. I think guys like Chad Brown or dad, or Todd, they have these horses because they’re successful. It will even itself out. A guy like me maybe will come in or somebody else will come in and be successful and start taking horses away from those guys, and things will start balancing. It’s not a great thing, but it’s the way it’s working now, and there’s no way to control it.