By Chris McGrath
His thoughts, on Wednesday, turned naturally to his late father. How could they not? Mark Casse was only 11 or 12 when he toured the Hall of Fame in Saratoga with the man whose passion for the Thoroughbred was already lighting a path for his whole future.
“I’m going to be in here someday,” the boy announced.
Most fathers think they know how to respond to a remark like that. “Sure you will. You’ll be the janitor.”
But Norman E. Casse was different. As usual, they were camping in their RV in the Fasig-Tipton parking lot, just a block away. Bringing his son here every summer, for the yearling sales, was part of an ongoing immersion in the whole culture; and the Hall of Fame had become a reverent ritual. “I’m sure you will,” he replied.
And, true to that faith, it was his father who–barely five years later–discovered that the one state which would issue a trainer’s licence to a 17-year-old was Massachusetts. Casse’s first runner, at Keeneland in 1979, promptly became the first of 2,865 winners dividing him from his election, this week, to the Hall of Fame.
So long a road, with Thoroughbreds, will invariably have its twists and turns; its blind alleys and smashes, as well as open stretches of freewheeling good fortune.
“There have been so many forks in the road,” Casse reflects. “Had I gone left instead of right, or right instead of left, would I be in the Hall of Fame today? Probably not. I was asked on Wednesday, ‘Is there a certain horse that got you there?’ And I said, ‘No. I think it goes to the people.'”
Someday he’d like to sit down and work through the whole timeline; revisit those crucial turns he made only because he had a wise hand on his shoulder. Most obviously that of his father, chairman of OBS for 27 years. But there were also pivotal years working for the late Harry Mangurian, and his Mockingbird Farm. Casse learned so much that he came to feel like the son Mangurian never had.
You can’t reach the Hall of Fame just by believing in destiny. What has sustained Casse, through good times and bad, is an unshakeable sense of vocation. From the outside, however, the narrative tends to be more seamless.
Sure enough, Casse’s election to the Hall of Fame came just before the reappearance of his first Classic winner, War of will (War Front) in Gulfstream’s Sunshine Forever S. And that reminds us all how, even in the fraction of Casse’s career that extends only to this time last year, we have seen fate test the man–and draw out his best.
Not only did we see him win the second and third legs of the Triple Crown with two different horses. First of all, we saw how he strove to restore dignity to the indecorum and upheaval generated by a single moment during its greatest race.
Casse was watching from the 5/16th pole as War of will launched his challenge to the front-running Maximum Security (New Year’s Day). His son Norman, named for the father Casse had lost in 2016, put an arm round him.
“Dad, you’re going to win the Kentucky Derby.”
We’ll never know whether War of Will might have won, but for that fateful bump. We do know that he affirmed his caliber by winning the GI Preakness S. two weeks later; and we also know that Casse, whatever else was going through his mind, aptly stressed that an unprecedented Derby disqualification was no kind of calamity compared with a catastrophic pile-up. Since then, however, all the contention over a rule broken out on the track has been subsumed by the far more grievous breaches alleged, by the Feds, to have taken place in the privacy of Maximum Security’s barn.
However that case plays out, Casse has meanwhile taken a courageous stand, including in the TDN, against the whole culture of medication abuse–notably Clenbuterol–with a clarity and resonance seldom volunteered by trainers of his stature. And that’s why many other horsemen of honor will hail his election to the Hall of Fame as a salute, not just to a tremendous record of personal achievement, but also to the whole principle of winning fair.
When his 17-year-old son Colby hugged his father on Wednesday, they sat down and talked about what it meant. They talked about “Humble and Kind”, a country song by Tim McGraw.
“It says: achieve your goals, but do it the right way,” Casse explains. “And I said to Colby, ‘This shows you that you don’t have to give up your integrity to be successful. You know, in life, there are going to be times when you’re going to have choices to make. And you don’t have to cheat, you don’t have to break rules, to be successful.’ And maybe that’s what I’m proudest of.
“I’m happy and excited that we’re cleaning up our sport. I was just tired of all the things that were going on. And I’ve come to the point in my life where I’ve done most of the things that I wanted to achieve. Racing has been so good to me. How can I give back? By being a spokesman for our game, by trying to make it better.”
He doesn’t dwell on what might have been, but for that bump in the Derby. “I’ve read so many experts saying this and that,” he says. “But the only one that I think would know is God. To be honest, I don’t even think about it. If there’s anything I would wonder, it’s whether that horse [Maximum Security] should even have been there. Given what we know now, who knows what was done to get him even to be competing in that race? I mean, I have been amazed by Maximum Security [since]. But he’s always going to have this stigma, and now I think he’s got to go out and prove that he’s truly that great, without any outside help.”
Regardless–not that it was ever a choice–Casse is clear in his mind that he would choose the Hall of Fame over a Kentucky Derby.
“Because it means you did it year after year,” he explains. “I’ve been so fortunate through my life, and have had so many great things go my way in racing. But this is a little different. Because it doesn’t say you did it one time, or two times; it says you’ve done it over a long period.”
Those serial accomplishments, of course, far exceed the compass of a treatment as inadequate as this. There have been so many memorable moments since the teenage Casse, after a six-month experiment with a licence, went back to his father to renege on the part of the deal that had committed him then to go to college. Dad, perhaps unsurprisingly, was okay with that.
Casse started out sleeping over the horse van cab, and even that was much better than some of the places he subsequently had to stay. He remembers going to bed in one hotel with the prayer: “Dear God, just let me wake alive in the morning!” He did not miss those days, certainly, after resolving to base himself in Toronto–a decision made despite having become, as many may have forgotten, Kentucky’s leading trainer while still in his 20s.
“Until probably 10 years ago, when Dale Romans broke it, I held the record for most wins at a meet in Kentucky,” he says. “But the Kentucky circuit was so mish-mash, you were always moving. What was so great about Canada was that they start in March and end in December. And those other four months I could spend in Ocala, which was home.”
Casse has won the Sovereign Award for Outstanding Trainer in Canada a record 11 times, but his son eventually started urging him to spread the net back to Kentucky.
“Norman pushed me and pushed me and when Mr. Oxley came aboard, he gave us the ammunition to be able to compete, to open up our Derby hopefuls and do things like that,” Casse explains. “One thing led to another and now we represent some of the biggest in the game.”
Sure enough, five Canadian Horses of the Year are now matched by five Breeders’ Cup winners; and there have so far been 18 millionaires. But the single photograph of a winning horse in Casse’s home depicts Tepin (Bernstein), boldly exporting her brilliance to a long, soggy stretch of Royal Ascot in the G1 Queen Anne S. in 2016.
“At the time, honestly, I didn’t realize what a feat it was,” Casse admits. “As each year goes by, I have a greater appreciation for it. If it wasn’t for Mr. Masterson–a true, true sportsman–would we have gone? But he pushed and pushed, and thank goodness he did because that win makes us kind of unique.”
With the return of War of Will in mind, it’s worth remembering how Tepin’s form somewhat faded as a sophomore. With her, as with the likes of World Approval (Northern Afleet) and Got Stormy (Get Stormy), Casse and his team showed their skill in helping a maturing horse to regroup.
“We’ve never been shy about running,” Casse noted. “We will run and we will travel. Yes, the worst race Tepin ever ran was in the latter part of her 3-year-old season. But we gave her a break, and she was nearly unbeatable after that. World Approval, similar: we gave him some time, he came back. And then Got Stormy last year.
“War of Will ran hard and strong and obviously tapered off a little bit towards the end of the year. Or maybe he just wasn’t mature enough to play with the older horses. I always say that the 3-year-olds are like teenagers, and sometimes it’s a little too early to take them on. But he’s grown up, he’s matured. He’s bigger and stronger and training very well.”
The switch back to grass for the Sunshine Forever reflects the ambition, with War of Will’s stallion resume in mind, to add a Grade I on that surface. Conceivably, indeed, the reopening of Gary Barber’s home state might yet make the GI Shoemaker Mile a preferable comeback. This would obviously be a pretty late call, but such are the constant crossroads of Casse’s calling. After all, if War of Will had already won himself that Grade I on grass, he might never have tried the Triple Crown trail in the first place.
“Exactly,” says Casse. “If he’d had a cleaner trip in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, who knows? Thank goodness he didn’t, because he probably wouldn’t have won the Preakness.”
Such is the unpredictability of the racetrack. But unpredictability is universal, right now, and Casse’s many friends and admirers in the business would perhaps prefer the Hall of Fame induction ceremony be postponed for a year. Surely it would be twice the fun, that way, than if contrived within the strictures still likely to prevail in August.
The one guarantee is that Casse won’t be misinterpreting his accession. In this business, you never run out of challenges. Nonetheless he is proud that the Hall of Fame vindicates not just his own talent, but also the people who allowed it to flourish.
On Wednesday his mother called in tears of joy. When Casse was 13, and his parents were splitting up, she had wanted to take him with her back to Indiana.
“She was going to move away from horse racing, and there was a big battle over where I was going to stay,” he recalls. “One day I went to her and I said, ‘Mom, do you love me?’ She goes, ‘I love you more than anything in the world.’ I said, ‘Well, if you truly love me, you’ll let me stay with dad and the horses. Because if you take me away from the horses…’ And she said, ‘Okay.’ To me, that day, she showed how much she loved me. She sacrificed her feelings for mine, and there’s no greater love than that.”
His mother, then, has no less a share of the gratitude Casse divides between his parents. Their parting actually created a new bond of sorts, in mutually committing to his fulfilment. Yes, the joy that ultimately resulted comes with a renewed sorrow, in that it cannot be shared with his father. But at least Casse can comfort himself that his dad’s legacy is now secured forever.
“My Dad and I would go to the Hall of Fame all the time when we were in Saratoga,” Casse recalls. “Obviously I was in awe, because this was the world I loved. I had such love for my father and horse racing was what we did together. He was very instrumental in helping me achieve my goals, that’s for sure. I wouldn’t be where I am today without him. Unfortunately, it’s a few years now since he passed away. But I think he’s up there looking down, and I hope he’s very proud.”