By Alicia Wincze Hughes
ELMONT, N.Y. -There were 600-plus miles separating David Carroll from his boss as he sat in his Kentucky home on the evening of May 18. But as the veteran horseman watched the middle leg of the Triple Crown reach its conclusion on NBC, the same grateful narrative rolled through both his mind and that trainer Mark Casse in Baltimore.
Both men wanted the racing community to see what had been evident to them all along, that owner Gary Barber’s War of Will was one of the most naturally talented charges he’d trained in 40 years. In the aftermath of the colt’s 1 ¼-length triumph in the Preakness at Pimlico Race Course, Casse knew he could head to the Grade 1, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets on Saturday, June 8 with a charge capable of speaking for himself.
As he celebrated that night, Carroll was grateful War of Will not only had stamped himself among the elite of his generation, he strengthened the argument that his trainer will ultimately go down as one of his sports’ best.
“He’s in the Canadian Hall of Fame but I want to see this man in the [National Museum of Racing] Hall of Fame,” Carroll said of the 58-year-old Casse. “He’s a Hall of Famer to me and I think he is a Hall of Famer with numbers. It’s just a question of getting in. Hopefully this will just add to that.”
A finalist for racing’s highest honor in each of the past three years, Casse continues to make it increasingly difficult for voters to deny him a plaque on the Hall of Fame’s walls in Saratoga Springs, New York. War of Will’s Preakness triumph gave the native of Indiana his first classic triumph, filling in one of the pieces missing on an otherwise top-flight resume.
Over the last four seasons, the man once thought to be mostly a Woodbine-based kingpin has seen his operation become a force throughout North America, having earned five Breeders’ Cup victories and produced four individual Eclipse Award champions since 2015. With his first win in a Triple Crown race, Casse has the chance to add himself to the special echelon of those who have trained dual classic winners.
“Obviously I’ve been up for the Hall of Fame a couple times recently and when I look I was like well, we’ve had five Breeders’ Cup winners, five champions – of course one [two-time champion turf female Tepin] was twice – and it was like, what else do I need to do?” Casse said. “I think the classic win, it definitely helps. One thing I’m proud of is in the last three years, obviously Bob [Baffert] has dominated [the Triple Crown] pretty well. But you know we came close. There are only nine of them in the last three years and we’ve won one and came really close to winning two [second in the 2017 Preakness with Classic Empire]. So, I feel like our team is doing something right.”
Before going out on his own last year, Casse’s son Norm helped backstop his father as one standout after another began coming into their care. The younger horseman was also a catalyst behind convincing his dad to get out of his Canadian comfort zone and build up major divisions throughout the United States in such areas as New York, Kentucky, and Florida.
The primary resources for that expansion, said Casse, came from owner John Oxley and his commitment to the barn.
“I can give you two words that kind of kick-started us and got us going in the direction where we’re going: and that is John Oxley. He was the guy that saw something in us and allowed us to go out and start buying,” Mark Casse said. “If you go back five years, maybe eight years, and look at our stable each year, there were maybe three or four horses you’d think could maybe run 1 ¼-miles, much less win the Kentucky Derby. Then Mr. Oxley came along and he let us go out and buy better-bred horses and compete in the bigger races in North America. That led to Gary Barber, who has just been a tremendous supporter of ours. And then there are others.”
The son of the late Norman E. Casse, who operated Cardinal Hill Farm and helped start the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co., Mark Casse has never entertained a different career path. As a boy, he studied the Daily Racing Form as if the key to life were in its pages and by April 1979, he was saddling his first career winner.
Casse comes from the old school philosophy of running horses when they’re right and not being afraid to switch things up in search of unearthing a charge’s best form. Count War of Will as a prime example, as the colt made his first four career starts on turf before breaking his maiden over the main track last November 24 at Churchill Downs.
“Mark does a terrific job of putting these horses in the best position to win,” said Carroll, who joined Casse Racing in 2016 after disbanding his own training operation. “He just has a great feel for it and he puts his horse in the best places, but he’s not afraid to use races either to get horses ready and to figure out exactly what their best style is.
“A lot of people are afraid to run horses with their stats but he most certainly isn’t. And he’s just so versatile and so open minded. He’s got a great feel for everything, and you either have it or you don’t. Obviously, he has a lot of experience but he does it over and over and over again. That’s the beauty of it.”
Much of what Casse has experienced the past few years has prepared him to bring the best version of War of Will to the forefront. So when War of Will strained his right hind patellar ligament shortly after the start of the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby, in which he finished ninth, there was no panic.
“What training horses like [2016 juvenile male champion] Classic Empire and [two-time champion female horse] Tepin and so many other horses has helped me with is that I don’t usually get too excited where there are issues,” Casse said. “I try and keep a level head and I don’t give up very easy. So when things are thrown at me with a horse like a Classic Empire or even War of Will, I kind of look at it like okay, let’s think back. How do we deal with this, let’s not get too excited.
“I can remember our conversation, Gary Barber and I, after the Louisiana Derby and he was very concerned…and I said ‘Gary, this makes it a little tougher but we’re going to get there’. You get that confidence because you’ve done it before.”
In the aftermath of what Casse now refers as “the incident”, where War of Will was impeded by Maximum Security in the Kentucky Derby – resulting in the latter’s disqualification – he found himself at the center of reality show-type drama complete with accusations and finger pointing.
Casse has kept his composure throughout.
“In the grand scheme of things, [the Preakness] was another signature win, but how [Casse] and Mr. Barber handled everything from the Derby was handled first class and it made me even more proud to work for him,” Carroll said. “He does everything with class. People can be nice and show class when things are going their way but when they’re not, that’s when you see who the real person is. And I think everybody saw what Mr. Barber and Mark are made of.”