08/01/2014 1:56PM

Hovdey: Best Pal could be cure for Casse's duck


Mark Casse was hardly predicting that his stable would run wild at Del Mar this summer, winning races left and right. He knew that bringing 40 horses west from places like Louisville and Toronto was an expensive gamble. And he was familiar enough with names like Baffert, Sadler, Hollendorfer, and O’Neill to recognize a lion’s den when he saw one.

Still, nearly three weeks into the meet, Casse figured to at least have paid a token visit to the winner’s circle. It’s not that hard to find. Andy Mathis has won a race. Ruben Gomez has won a race. Bob Bean, Ed Freeman, and Victoria Oliver all won races, and none of them can be called a six-time winner of the Sovereign Award as Canada’s outstanding trainer of the year, like Casse can.

“It’s a little frustrating, sure,” Casse said Friday, playing the good sport. “I can go 10 starters without a win at Woodbine, and nobody will say a thing.”

For the record, the Casse stable has ranked seventh in the North American standings the past three seasons and is sitting in fifth this year. Back at Woodbine, he is the runaway leader once again with nearly twice the number of wins as the closest pursuer.

At Del Mar, Casse went through his first 11 starters without a win, but they’ve hardly been phoning it in. Five finished second, and another was third, among them the second- and third-place finishers in the Grade 2 San Clemente Stakes on opening weekend.

With no starters Friday or Saturday, Casse will be trying to get off his Del Mar duck Sunday with two young guns in the $200,000 Best Pal Stakes, at 6 1/2 furlongs on the synthetic main track. Conquest Bigluck E, a maiden winner at Churchill Downs, is by Lookin At Lucky, the winner of the 2009 Best Pal, while Skyway, by Sky Mesa, won a Keeneland maiden race on synthetic in April before finishing third in the Bashford Manor at Churchill Downs.

If he doesn’t, spare the sympathy. Casse is that rare breed of Thoroughbred trainer who seems to never stray from an even keel. As a second-generation horseman, the proprietor of a working farm, and a father of seven, he has plenty to keep him anchored, while clients like Gary Barber, John Oxley, and the Conquest Stables of Ernie Semersky and Dory Newell help stock the Casse barns with bloodlines to burn.

Some of that breeding was on display last Sunday in Del Mar’s seventh race, in which Casse finished second with Make the Sun Shine, a daughter of Malibu Moon who cost Oxley $700,000 last March at the sale of 2-year-olds in Ocala, Fla.

“There she is now,” Casse said, nodding toward a bouncy chestnut trotting past the trainer’s morning perch in the Del Mar clubhouse boxes. “This is the perfect spot for me. I can watch my horses finish and pull up, and when they go through the paddock, it’s right here behind the stands.”

Arrayed on Casse’s work table were the tools of the modern, multistable trainer: laptop, iPad, cellphone, walkie-talkie, stopwatch, and binoculars. He also might have had a Geiger counter and a portable espresso machine, but they were not readily apparent. Casse makes no apologies for his new-school approach.

“Lee Iacocca said if you don’t keep up, you’ll get run over,” he said. “I saw Steve Asmussen not long ago, with all the horses in his operation, and he’s still shuffling piles of paper.”

Casse opened a file on the laptop that displayed training charts for every horse in the stable, then scanned to a selection of videos on the iPad.

“Here’s a team of our 2-year-olds working at Ocala,” he said. Click. “And here’s a team working at Woodbine, all this morning. The camera is built right into the binoculars, then it’s uploaded to our own YouTube account.”

Somewhere in Missouri, Ben Jones groaned in his grave.

Casse’s national profile grew from his success as a leading trainer at Churchill Downs in 1988. Rather than continuing to spend summers at Ellis Park or Arlington, he opted for Woodbine and discovered a long meet that could provide stability for both his horses and his growing family. Casse’s roots are in Indiana and Florida, and he calls Ocala home, but he felt very Canadian on July 6, when, after several tries, he finally won the coveted Queen’s Plate with Barber’s filly Lexie Lou.

“Even with 155 years of history and the connection to royalty, you never quite realize just how big winning the Queen’s Plate is until it happens,” Casse said. “I turned in excitement after she won and saw that my youngest son, Colby, had tears streaming down his face. I was worried that I’d banged him with my elbow or something, but no, he was just very emotional.

“There’s four major papers, and we were on the front page of two of them,” Casse added. “Then the next morning, we were eating breakfast at the airport, and there on the TV is my son holding up the trophy.”

Compared with winning the Queen’s Plate, you’d think a race like the Best Pal would be small potatoes. But Casse is hoping to establish a major beachhead in California. Breaking the Del Mar ice in a graded stakes would be a good way to make that happen.