08/04/2016 2:36PM

Hovdey: Hall of Fame powers needed with Noble Bird


Okay, Mark Casse – freshly christened member of the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame, trainer of Tepin, Catch a Glimpse, and Lexie Lou, among others – think you’re hot stuff? Let’s see what you can do with the enigmatic Noble Bird against Frosted on Saturday in the 89th running of the Whitney at Saratoga.

Talk about bringing a butter knife to a gunfight.

Of course, Casse does not think he’s hot stuff, but when reached Thursday morning at Saratoga, he was still glowing from the Hall of Fame ceremonies the night before at the Mississagua Convention Centre near Woodbine. He was gracious and grateful in his acceptance speech, noting in awe the company of trainers he has joined that includes Lucien Laurin, Horatio Luro, and Roger Attfield, and his thank-yous were liberally spread among his owners, his horses, and the stable crews of his several training outposts.

What Casse could not do, however, was finish his speech. With his voice cracking with emotion, he turned the podium over to his wife and racing partner, Tina Casse, and stood aside while she read his dedication to his father, the widely respected horseman Norman Casse, who died this year.

“With this honor, I spent a lot of time in reflection,” Casse said. “It seems that time is flying by now, but as you look back, as it’s going, sometimes it’s a little hard to enjoy it. As Allen Jerkens said when he was asked if everything was okay: ‘When you’re a horse trainer, everything is never okay.’ ”

At 55, Casse was in his first year of eligibility for the Canadian Hall. The native of Indiana got there by winning the Woodbine training title 11 times, eight Sovereign Awards, and Canadian Horse of the Year with Sealy Hill, Uncaptured, Lexie Lou, and Catch a Glimpse. Taking Breeders’ Cup races last year with Catch a Glimpse and the champion Tepin didn’t hurt either.

“Someone came up to me about a year ago and said how wonderful it must be to train all those good horses,” Casse said. “I just smiled and said yes. But as we all know, there is always something to worry about. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. And I love my life. But I’ll tell you one thing: I’ve grown to have a greater respect for Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher and those kind of guys.”

The feeling should be mutual. Casse first penetrated the North American top 10 in earnings in 2011 and has been there since, currently rolling fourth behind Pletcher, Chad Brown, and Steven Asmussen.

With his assistant and son, Norman Casse, the elder Casse rocked the racing world last spring when they sent out Robert Masterson’s Tepin to beat the best milers Europe could muster in the Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot. The mare has been back in steady training, looking for a path to a defense of her title in the Breeders’ Cup Mile.

“She’s been struggling a bit with Saratoga’s main track – it’s so deep and tiring,” Casse said. “So, we’re trying to figure out how to cope with that and get her ready for whatever is next. But we’re dealing with it, and she’ll be fine.”

While Tepin has been as reliable as the dawn, John Oxley’s Noble Bird has been a puzzlement. Making his 17th start, the 5-year-old son of Travers winner Birdstone finds himself among five entered against Frosted in the $1.25 million Whitney, at 1 1/8 miles on the main track.

All Casse and his jockey, Julien Leparoux, need to do is flip the 18 lengths or so that separated Frosted and Noble Bird at the end of the Met Mile at Belmont Park on June 11. That was the day Frosted freaked, winning by an official 14 1/4 lengths in a performance so off-the-wall remarkable that it stole the show from the featured Belmont Stakes and anything else that happened in horse racing that day.

“It’s not a matter of finding those 18 lengths in Noble Bird,” Casse said. “What we need is for Frosted not to go throwing a 123 Beyer at us again. If he could regress a little bit, that would be very helpful.”

To describe Noble Bird as inconsistent is an understatement. Casse thought he had a classic colt on his hands when Noble Bird was a 3-year-old, but he did not win a maiden race until August of that year in his fifth start. At 4, he defeated Lea and Hoppertunity in the Stephen Foster Handicap, and this year he won the Pimlico Special by 11 1/4 lengths. In between, though, there were sprinkled grim efforts that baffled both Casse and his jockeys.

“He’s the toughest horse to ride I’ve ever trained,” Casse said. “He can make good riders look bad. He breaks a little slow, and then he wants to run off. But if you take too much of a hold, he’ll stick his head straight up in the air, and the rider will fall back on the saddle.

“But he is a Grade 1 winner,” Casse added, “and he loves Saratoga. He’ll work as good as a horse can work over that surface. So, if he brings his “A” game, he’ll run really well. If he doesn’t, it doesn’t matter where you run him. It doesn’t make sense, so you might as well run for a lot of money.”