By Sue Finley
Mark Casse may have made more starts over dirt and synthetic surfaces combined than any other trainer in history-over 5,000 starts on synthetic and 5,000 on dirt in the past 15 years alone. He estimates that he has sent horses out to gallop, breeze, or race over a synthetic surface 150,000 times in the past 10 years. With a base at Woodbine, where they race and train over a Tapeta surface which sports one of the lowest instances of catastrophic injuries in North America, Casse offered to sit down with the TDN in the wake of another tragic day in racing to advocate for a switch to a surface which he considers far safer and easier on horses than dirt.
Q: Were you at the races at Saratoga on Saturday?
MC: Luckily, I missed (New York Thunder). I had seen the Test, and I thought, I've been doing this for 40-some years. It was the most sickening thing that I'd ever witnessed in racing.
Q: Where do we find ourselves right now in horse racing?
MC: I'm a big HISA supporter, and I believe that we've already made great strides. There's no question that, when I go over for a race, I feel like we are competing on a more level playing field. I think there's still a little room for improvement and that we'll continue to go forward, but you can look at who's winning now and who was winning before. There are lots of rules and regulations that are being put out there to make things safer or we're trying to make things safer for the horse, and I'm going to make a lot of people unhappy when I say this, but until we change the racetracks, we're going to continue to have these kinds of situations. I'm not saying that, with synthetic, we will never have them. You're always going to have some injuries. I have 30 horses here at Saratoga, and the worst injury that I've had at the meet is a horse that hurt herself in her stall. When you have live animals and you have horses, things are going to happen. But we need to do everything possible to know that we are doing our very best.
I am always trying to be bigger and better. I feel like if you stand still, you get run over. Currently, at my organization, we have an app where we can videotape a horse jogging, and it gets sent to Stockholm, Sweden, and within about three minutes, it sends us back a report that tells us if a horse is off on a certain limb. We use it constantly. We're always trying to take care of these horses as all of us, but the things happen.
Q: So what would you like to see happen?
MC: I think we really, seriously, need to look at more synthetic tracks. I believe in them. I believe they've got plenty of data to back that up, and I think if anybody's an expert on it, it should be me.
Q: At any given time, how many horses do you have in training on dirt and on synthetic?
MC: Right now, I have approximately 90 horses training at tracks on dirt. I have 75 at Woodbine training on synthetic.
Q: And how many starts per year do you think you make on each surface?
MC: I broke it down over the last four years. In 2022, we had 1,402 starts, 525 on turf, 432 on synthetic, and 445 on dirt. From 2019 to today, we've had 5,921 starts since the beginning of 2019, 2,766 of which were turf starts. But 1,574 synthetic starts and 1,581 dirt. So it's pretty close.
Q: Tell me what your observations are from your horses running on each surface.
MC: A lot of things are different. We scope every horse after they breeze and after they race. We breeze or run 50 horses a week on dirt and I would say that at least 40% of those horses will show some type of bleeding when they're scoped, even if they're on Lasix. If those same 50 horses run over synthetic or turf, the odds of them showing any signs of bleeding would be somewhere around 5%.
Q: And what do you attribute that to?
MC: It's less stressful. I can also tell you this. A horse that you want to run on synthetic takes about as half as amount of breezes to get them ready to run as a dirt horse. So in other words, say I'm going to run a horse off a layoff, a horse would maybe need 10 or 12 breezes, and I'll run horses off of six or seven breezes on Tapeta. It's just less stressful, so when you have less stress, they rebound quicker. They're sounder the next day.
Q: What other differences do you see in your horse population at Woodbine, in terms of the health of your horses?
MC: There's no question, over the years, if I have horses that are coming back off long layoffs, it's much easier to bring them back over synthetic. I train for a few different clients that have horses with other trainers around North America, and I actually get most of their horses that have bowed or had suspensory injuries, and the reason for it is it's much easier to bring them back over synthetic. We have a great return rate with these old injuries. If I have horses that have had physical injuries in the past, I pretty well send those horses to Woodbine to train over the synthetic. What people don't realize is this. Yes, we're seeing injuries on the dirt, and we're also seeing injuries on the turf, right? It's my belief that some of these injuries we are seeing on the turf, it's because these horses are training on the dirt. A turf horse, for the most part, a true turf horse struggles with the dirt surface. It's like having a car where the wheels are imbalanced. You're going down the road, and it struggles. It's not smooth, and all at once, the hubcap flies off. There was nothing wrong with the hubcap, but over a period of time, there's a weakness, there's a crack in the armor, and then that's what we're seeing. So when you see a lot of these injuries, there is something that's been going on for a while. I know a lot of my good turf horses, they just thrive at Woodbine, because they get to train over the synthetic every day. Interestingly enough, Tepin won all over North America, except in Saratoga, and I always thought it was because she struggled so much with the deeper surface here. We get to breeze them on the grass once a week or something like that, but their everyday training is on the dirt.
Q: We have heard a lot of trainers say that there are more soft-tissue injuries on synthetic surfaces. That was a very common theme when so many tracks switched to synthetic several years ago. What is your opinion on this?
MC: I have sent out somewhere over 150,000 horses to train over synthetic, and that could be no farther from the truth. That is an absolute falsehood. The chances of a horse hurting their suspensory, soft tissue injury, a tendon, is much greater on the dirt, and it's not even close. I base this on lots of data. I tell everybody, I do my own studies. I study every day. I've been studying for 40-some years.
Q: Several years ago, several tracks, like those in California and Keeneland, switched to synthetic, and then switched back. Why do you think this was?
MC: I think what happened was they didn't know how to handle them. They definitely didn't know how to install them, so I think there were a lot of issues with the early tracks. In California, I think they had three different tracks, and they struggled. Santa Anita struggled. Del Mar, I remember, I actually went out the last year, the last meet that Del Mar had synthetic. I was there, and I'd have conversations all the time with trainers out there, and they were like, “Oh. We're going to be so happy to go back to dirt.”
And I can remember saying to them, “Be careful what you wish for. Be careful what you wish for.”
And we know that things didn't turn out so well. As far as Keeneland goes, I think it was 2008. I was asked to talk on a board, because they were looking at possibly putting in synthetic. I can remember Todd was there. Dale Romans was there. Nick Zito was there. We talked about it at that point in time, and one of the panel members said, “Well, we have to worry about tradition.”
I said to them, “We're going to be history. We're not going to have to worry about tradition.”
I feel that way now. We have to stop worrying about tradition or history, I'm sorry, or we're going to be history. We can't worry about tradition. Look, at Woodbine I think we just ran the 164th Plate, and the first 130 of them were on dirt, but they still made that switch, and I applaud them for that. So Keeneland put it in. That was Polytrack. Fifteen years ago, New York didn't have the money. I think if New York had gone ahead and been able to put in synthetic at that point in time, Keeneland keeps theirs.
Some others would've maybe followed suit, but when New York couldn't do it, they couldn't afford to do it, Keeneland, in my opinion, felt like they were the only kind of synthetic track, and they were losing some of their Derby prospects and Oaks prospects, and they succumbed to the pressure. I was listening to a conversation 15 years ago or so at Keeneland. I heard a very good horse trainer who has since retired telling somebody, “I like synthetic, but if we run them at Keeneland and they run well, the owners will want to send them somewhere else, and we don't have synthetic in New York, so we just don't run them.” I found that interesting.
Q: What do you say to the argument from breeders in Kentucky who oppose a switch to synthetic, citing not only tradition, but the investments that they've made in dirt stallions? Is there any validity to their argument, do you think?
MC: I don't think so, because if we don't have an industry, it's not going to matter. The way we're going, that's where we're headed. Look, you have two of the biggest racetracks in the world who have had crises this year. I've sat there and watched how hard Saratoga works on their racetrack. Glen Kozak does an absolutely tremendous job. He is unbelievable. Churchill's the same way. They have the best of the best. They do the best they can do, but again, look at it. What if we had kept the Model T? Instead, look at what we've done with automobiles, how we've made those so much safer. We're still using a racetrack that's been around for 125 years, and there's only so much you can do for it.
Patrick Husbands has been champion rider in Canada for years, and he told me something very interesting one time. He got hurt about three or four years ago, and I didn't see what happened to him, so I called him in the hospital, and I said, “Patrick, what happened? Did a horse fall with you?” He said, “Mark, I've never had a horse fall with me on synthetic.” I said, “What do you mean?”
He said, “The difference between a synthetic track and a dirt track, for the most part, is that the synthetic actually catches them and gives you a little bounce back. A lot of times when a horse breaks a bone, the next step is where it gets ugly. It's like a thud. There is no give to it, so it doesn't bounce back.” Here's a guy that's ridden thousands and thousands and thousands of races, and for him to say that, I just found it very interesting.
Look, I'm getting to the end of my career. I've been doing this 40-some years, and I feel like it's why I'm involved with HISA as well. I have a son, Norman, who has been very successful. I have another son, Colby, that could end up being a horse trainer as well. This industry has been very good to me. Everything I have is because of it, and I just want to try to make it better. When I leave, I want it to be better than when I started. So that's why I'm speaking out. This is not for me. I'm fine. I'm just trying to make our sport better.