11/20/2007 12:00AM

This first-timer's no novice

EmailNEW ORLEANS - At age 46, the trainer Mark Casse is coming to Fair Grounds for the first time. New Orleans and much of the racing public might not know him, but make no mistake - Casse knows racing. Of those 46 years, most have been spent around horses, and Casse already is a 30-year veteran of the sport.

The son of Florida horseman Norman Casse, Mark Casse began running his father's barn when he was a 15-year-old. At 18, he had a license and was out on his own.

"Growing up, all around you, your friends, they don't know what they want to do," Casse said, reached by phone this week in Canada. "I knew what I wanted to do. When I was 12, the worst day of the week for me was Sunday, because there was no Racing Form on Sunday. My dad says to this day, 'If it doesn't whinny, I don't know anything about it,' and I guess I'm starting to feel that way."

A long career already behind him, Casse is in the midst of a career year. Through Monday, his stable had won 82 races in 2007 - including 15 stakes, three of which were graded - with purse earnings of more than $5.5 million, 15th-best among trainers in North America. Casse is dominating the ongoing Woodbine meet. Through Sunday, his 79 winners were 26 more than the next-best total. His operation has grown large, with about 75 horses in training at its peak, and encompasses hopefuls for major spring races, which is why Casse has opened a 25-stall Fair Grounds string this winter.

"It used to be, I wouldn't race much in the winter," Casse said. "Now, there's no shutting down."

Who knows how large Casse might have grown if he had stayed on a certain trajectory some 20 years ago. In 1988, he saddled a then-record 38 winners at the Churchill Downs spring meet. Instead of growing larger, Casse scaled down - down, in fact, to 22 winners in 1990.

"I started out so young," said Casse. "I tip my hat to guys like Steve Asmussen and Todd Pletcher. I don't know how they do it. It wore me out."

Casse took a job as the general manager of Harry Mangurian's Mockingbird Farm in Florida, which entailed overseeing some 900 horses, but was back to training again in the late 1990s, while operating as a major consignor of 2-year-olds at horse sales. But after winning 71 races in 2001, Casse lost ground, at least in terms of raw winners, and contemplated another exit.

"The only thing I really wanted to accomplish was winning the big races," Casse said, adding that "I could have made more money buying and selling horses," but that horse owner Bill Farish told him, " 'No, you're too good at this, I know what you can do.' "

Farish, the son of Lane's End Farm master Will Farish, put together a partnership, Woodford Racing, with a commitment to "go out and buy good young horses," said Casse. Among Woodford, support from Eugene Melnyk, and other good clients, Casse has shifted direction.

"In the past, if I had a good horse, I'd sell it," he said. "Now, I'm in a position to develop horses and keep them."

It's that kind of horse who will eventually be showing up here this winter. Casse said he will have some 40 horses wintering at his Moonshadow Farm in Florida, shifting stock from there to Fair Grounds as the occasion arises, and by meet's end, most of Casse's good young prospects probably will see time in New Orleans. That group includes the fillies Clearly Foxy, a troubled sixth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies after winning her first two starts; Officer Sherrie, a winner of three straight, including the Grade 3 Mazarine; and Lickety Lemon, beaten a neck in the Jessamine Stakes last out at Keeneland. Clearly Foxy is being pointed to the Silverbulletday here Feb. 9.

Casse may be just as deep in colts. Two-year-old Miner's Claim may be the best prospect in Canada, with easy wins in his first two starts, and is a candidate for the Feb. 9 Risen Star Stakes. Casse also mentioned Briarwood Circle and Turf War (a full brother to Grasshopper), as noteworthy 2-year-olds.

Overseeing the day-to-day doings at the Casse barn will be another Norman Casse, Mark's 24-year-old son. The younger Casse graduated from college and "had other interests" beyond racing, his father said. But a couple years ago, he asked his father for a job.

"I didn't make him do it, he came to me wanting to do it," Casse said. "He got the bug I've had my entire life."