03/23/2017 2:56PM

Hovdey: Casse's line cast for the next big one

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The handling of a 2-year-old champion as the early favorite for the Kentucky Derby is very serious business. Ask around. Tradition requires that a trainer in such a position think of nothing else, every day, every hour, between the dawning of January and the first Saturday in May.

So, why then is Mark Casse on a boat – fishing, no less, with his family, for Pete’s sake – while Classic Empire trains in central Florida after a couple of snags in his unfolding 3-year-old campaign?

“I know, I know,” Casse said from the boat. “I’m sure I’ll get criticized taking a week off at a time like this.”

Criticized? He might get his license pulled. Never mind that he is coming off the best season of his career, during which he trained two champions, the winners of nearly $18 million, and was inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame. There are a few time-honored, unwritten rules in horse racing – don’t try to get through inside Martin Pedroza, for instance – and one of them holds that trainers and vacations are like oil and water.

At least, that’s how it used to be. Fortunately, Casse works in a more civilized era, one in which trainers are not expected to work until they drop in front of a stall. It’s a wise man who knows when to hit the pause button.

“It was my son’s spring break,” Casse said.

There was a splash in the background.

“We just dropped anchor,” the trainer said. “Colby’s 14, and yesterday he landed a 40-pound cobia. That was pretty neat.”

Let the envy begin.

Casse has a tech-savvy operation with horses in several major camps all tied into the head man’s laptop. His eyes and ears are amplified by a cadre of trusted assistants, including his son Norman.

In addition to his headline horses, Tepin and Classic Empire, Casse is deep with young runners who have earned their turn to shine. One of them is King and His Court, owned by Gary Barber and Adam Wachtel, who runs in the $500,000 Spiral Stakes over the Turfway Park synthetic course on Saturday. Gary Boulanger is back aboard.

Last time out, King and His Court finished up the track in the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, his first start of the year. Prior to that, the son of Court Vision had won his first two starts for the Casse stable last fall – the Coronation Futurity and the Display Stakes over Woodbine’s synthetic main track.

“That horse has been good to us, but he didn’t like the dirt at all,” Casse said. “Gary said he knew it warming up. The way he trained on the dirt, we thought he’d run okay. But it’s just a different world.”

No matter how he runs Saturday, King and His Court would seem to be a prime Casse candidate for the Queen’s Plate at Woodbine in June. Casse won Canada’s premier event for the first time in 2015.

“He’s not just on our shortlist for the Queen’s Plate,” Casse said. “He’s No. 1.”

Casse’s voice softens with affection when it comes to Tepin, the queen of the North American grass. She has yet to race since finishing a close second to Tourist in the Breeders’ Cup Mile last November.

“We’re anxious to get her back in the cooler weather,” Casse said. “She just wasn’t herself for a few weeks, with a little stomach virus. And she’s usually a good-feeling filly, up and down, jumping around.”

Tepin, 6, is a two-time Eclipse Award winner who has won major events in three countries, including the Woodbine Mile, the Queen Anne at Royal Ascot, and the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Mile at Keeneland. The only hill left to climb was a race in Dubai, which was the original plan shaped by Casse and owner Robert Masterson at the beginning of the year.

“Once we figured out we weren’t going to make Dubai, we just decided to cool it since she probably won’t have more than three or four races this year,” Casse said. “She’s galloping every day, and when she gets to Churchill Downs, she’ll start working. There’s not a whole lot more for her to accomplish, but we’d obviously love to win another Breeders’ Cup Mile with her.”

As for Classic Empire, Casse got word that the colt worked well at Winding Oaks Farm in Ocala, Fla., this week and seems to be back in the kind of rhythm that puts him on track to make a viable Kentucky Derby prep race. The son of Pioneerof the Nile has acquired a bad-boy reputation in some circles, but Casse rises to his defense.

“He doesn’t have a mean bone in his body,” the trainer said. “You could put a 5-year-old kid in his stall and never worry. But he can be stubborn sometimes.”

And sometimes it’s best to back away from a stubborn teenager for a few days, go fishing, and start fresh. Casse is hoping that Classic Empire can be the linchpin of another memorable season. His next holiday will be Christmas.

“We have seven Grade 1 winners in the barn, with the potential of five or six more,” he said. “There’s never a good time to take off, but sometimes you just have to, and this week had been planned for a long time.

“Starting next week,” he added, “it gets really intense.”