02/10/2009 12:00AM

Casse's California venture a year-round project


ARCADIA, Calif. - Gaining a toehold in California racing has been relatively easy for trainer Mark Casse this winter. Getting used to cross-country travel from his base in Florida is another issue.

"Is it a pain? Yes," Casse said on Sunday. "I just sat on a plane for five hours."

During long flights to Casse's base in Ocala, Fla., he can reflect on a decent start to the first seven weeks of the Santa Anita meeting.

Casse has 34 horses at Santa Anita, and has already won a stakes - the San Pedro last month with Congor Bay, a starter in Monday's $150,000 San Vicente Stakes. Through Sunday, Casse's stable had 4 wins from 31 starters.

"I came out there to see how our horses stacked up," he said. "We'd like to have won more races than we have. They all seem to run pretty well and they seem competitive."

Casse, who turns 48 on Saturday, insists that his first foray into California racing is not just a wintertime venture. The winner of the Sovereign Award as Canada's leading trainer for the last three years, Casse wants a stable in California on a year-round basis.

Casse said the concept of stabling in California was an easy sell to prominent clients such as Bill Farish and Eugene Melnyk.

"They're big on the synthetic surfaces," Casse said.

Casse's is one of four Eastern-based stables with divisions in Southern California this year. Graham Motion, based year-round in Maryland, has a stable led by Saucey Evening, the champion California-bred 2-year-old filly of 2008. Christophe Clement, based in New York and Florida, has a small team that includes California stakes winners Gio Ponti and In Summation.

For the third consecutive year, Todd Pletcher has a stable in California. Pletcher trains Cowboy Cal, the winner of the Strub Stakes last Saturday.

The circuit badly needs such trainers - high-end outfits with stakes- and allowance-caliber horses. Casse, for his part, needs results in California to justify the expense. While Casse is learning the ins and outs of the Los Angeles airport, his stable has shown signs of fitting on the circuit.

The 3-year-old Congor Bay, owned by Eugene Melnyk, has made two starts at the meeting, finishing third in the Eddie Logan Stakes on turf in December and winning the San Pedro Stakes at 6 1/2 furlongs on Jan. 19.

The San Pedro was a prep for the Grade 2 San Vicente at seven furlongs, a distance that Casse thinks will be an ideal fit for Congor Bay. For now, there are no plans for a campaign toward the Kentucky Derby.

"He seems to be improving," Casse said. "We'll keep him sprinting. We'll try to stay realistic. I'd like to try him again on turf sometime."

Conversely, there have been disappointments. Shafted, who won an allowance race in January, finished eighth in the Robert Lewis Stakes last Saturday. Marchfield, Canada's champion older male on the main track in 2008, was eighth in the San Pasqual Handicap last month and sixth in Sunday's San Antonio Handicap.

"I was a pretty disappointed with Shafted," Casse said. "I don't know why he didn't run better."

Two prominent Farish-owned horses will start later at this meeting.

Gloriously, who placed in three stakes at Woodbine last year, is preparing for her 2009 debut. Royal Oath, the winner of the Grade 2 King Edward Stakes at Woodbine last June, is returning from a pastern injury. Royal Oath won the 2007 Royal Hunt Cup at Royal Ascot.

Those horses are overseen on a daily basis by assistant trainer Ricky Griffith, the former jockey who has been on Casse's team since the late 1990s.

"We're going to adjust as we see how they work out," Casse said of his stable. "I've got a lot of good Canadian-breds so you won't see them.

"The plan is if it goes well, we'll stay here. We needed two divisions. Woodbine has a short turf season. We needed someplace else, and I like the synthetic surfaces. We'll give it a try."