07/11/2016 9:17AM

Pandolfo: One on one with driver Walter Case Jr

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Luanne Case
Walter Case Jr got some rare time on the track during the Goshen Fair at Historic Track.

It's always fun to talk to a legend and I recently had such a pleasure. They call him Casey.

With 11,038 career wins, Walter Case, Jr. is 8th on the all-time list of dash-winning harness drivers. He led North America in wins three times—1998, 2001 and 2002.

Walter Case, Jr. was one of the few harness drivers I've ever known who seemed to be born to drive horses. To some guys, it's a job. To Case, it was a passion. I met him for the first time at Monticello years ago. I could sense his energy and enthusiasm. I remember thinking to myself, I wonder if the horses sense that.

That was one of the questions I asked him.

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Pandy: You'd get a drive on a horse that had been racing dull and wind up winning for fun. When you drive a horse for the first time, do you think the horse knows, even before the race starts, that something is different?

Casey: They know. It’s something in the hands. It's hard to explain.

Pandy: I've written that, in my opinion, drivers who excel on the front end have soft hands, which helps them rate a horse without wasting the horse's energy. I've seen horses set the pace with one guy and get tired, then get a better driver, go the same fractions, but this time they have something left in the tank.  Am I right about that or is it hyperbole?

Casey: You're definitely right about that. It's in the hands, and it's God given. You can't teach it. I learned to drive from my dad. He was a good horsemen, but he had heavy hands. Horses would pull and fight him, and of course that takes away their energy.

Pandy: You're not a big guy. Do you think a driver's weight makes any difference?

Casey: To me, any driver who is between 150 to 175 pounds, that's fine. The year I won over 1,000 races, I was 148 pounds. I won over 843 races in 1992 and I was 155 pounds. But once you get up around 200 pounds, that's going to slow the horse down, in my opinion.

Pandy: What else was unique about your driving style?

Casey: I was one of the first drivers to lean back in the bike. That seemed to work for me. I also think I was the first driver to buy his own bike. Back then everyone used the trainer's bikes. But I wanted my own bike because sometimes the stirrups would be too long and I was uncomfortable. I bought the latest bikes that came out. I had a single hitch. I had the Cheetah bike, which I liked. The way the Cheetah was hooked up to the horse, your feet were right behind the horse's tail.

I remember showing the great Cat Manzi one of my bikes. Cat was one of the taller drivers and I could see that the stirrups weren't fitting him. I said, "Cat, you can buy one of these and get it custom made for your size." He did and he loved it.

Pandy: Let's talk about your best year, 1998, when you set a record for dash wins.

Casey: I won 1076 races that year, in only 2993 races. That's the accomplishment I'm most proud of. I was the first driver to ever win 1,000 races in one year. Tim Tetrick and Tony Morgan are the only two other drivers to win 1,000. And I did it driving mainly at one track. I won 978 races at Yonkers in one year. That's a record for wins in a year at one track. Tetrick and Morgan both drove in over 4,000 races when they went over 1,000.

Pandy: Yes, Tetrick and Morgan had win percentages of 25% when they broke 1,000 wins in one season. Which is outstanding. But your win percentage was 35%, which is amazing. And you won most of the races at a major track. Did you prepare for the card each night? What was your routine?

Casey: Oh yes, I prepared. I'd buy the Sports Eye early and study it for hours. I'd read the handicapper's analysis and I did my own handicapping. I also watched a lot of replays. On the replays, you could often pick up things that a horse did that didn't show up in the program.  I liked to know as much as I could about the horses in the race. Of course, like Peyton Manning, I often had to call an audible. Once the gate opens everything could change. On paper it looks like no one's leaving, then five horses leave. You have to be able to adjust quickly.

Pandy: Even though you were a very aggressive driver, you won plenty of races from off the pace. Is there a knack to it?

Casey: I liked to keep the horse calm before the race. I scored them down quiet. I tried to reserve a horse's energy as much as possible. I also wanted to have the horse's nose on the gate well before the start. I don't believe in trying to time the gate. I see drivers do it, but to me, if you have the horse tugging or pulling before the race, you're using too much energy before the race starts.

During the race, I like to keep the horse relaxed. I think I was good at that. Driving on half mile tracks, like Northfield or Yonkers, I actually won a lot of races from third over. When I had bad cover, I'd often gun the horse three wide and try to get the lead into the turn. When I took a horse back, if I thought the lead driver was slowing the pace too much, I'd try to surprise him, take control of the race.

Pandy: Was there any turning point in your career?

Casey: I was driving in Maine. In 1983 I got a call from John Manzi, the publicity man at Monticello. He told me that some drivers had gotten suspended and he urged me to come down to Monticello. It turned out to be a good move. I was the leading driver there. The following year I went to the Meadowlands, driving against top talent like John Campbell and Billy O'Donnell. I was 23 years old and still learning but I did pretty well there. But when I started driving at Yonkers in 1990, that's when my career really took off.

Pandy: What were your best nights?

Casey: In terms of wins, I was the first to win 10 races on one card. It did it at Northfield in Ohio, in 1999. I also won 10 races at Pocono once. But then years later I saw they listed it as 9. I called the USTA. They told me that one of the horses had tested positive so they took one win off. I was surprised, I thought they only penalized the horse and owners by taking away the purse money. The most races I won at Yonkers was 8 races. It was an 11-race card. I won 8 and finished second in the other three races.

Pandy: What was the best horse you ever drove?

Casey: Without a doubt, Cambest, who was sired by the great Cam Fella. I won the Haughton Final with Cambest at Yonkers. I also won the Presidential Final with Cambest in 1993. That was my last drive ever at the Meadowlands. Cambest was a great horse, one of the fastest horses of all time. His time trial of 1:46 1/5 is still the fastest ever. And he went on to become a great sire. He passed away last June, at 27 years old.

I had to be careful when driving Cambest. He was a very fast horse, but if fired him off the gate he'd grab on and he was tough to slow down. When I won the Presidential, we got away tenth. I could have easily left and looped the field if I wanted, but it was better to let him relax into his stride early, otherwise he'd be hard to control. Bill O'Donnell drove him in the world record time trial and I remember reading that O'Donnell said that Cambest could go a quarter as fast as any horse he ever drove.

Pandy: What other top horses did you get to drive?

Casey: The biggest purse I ever won was the Peter Haughton with Westgate Crown. I think that was 1986 and the purse was $375,000. My best night for earnings though was at Yonkers in 1994. I was in five New York sire stakes races and won three Finals and finished second twice.

The highest purse I ever competed for was in the 1984 Woodrow Wilson. The purse was $2.1 million, at the time the richest race in history for either thoroughbreds or harness. It was exciting just being in the race. I didn't have a chance, though. There was no way anyone was going to beat Nihilator that night.

Another race that sticks out to me is when I drove a horse named Captain Pantastic and beat the great Life Sign in the Dancer Memorial at Freehold in 1993. It was a huge upset. Captain Pantastic paid $182.00 to win, which I believe was the highest priced winner I ever drove.  Life Sign was a great horse. He was by Abercrombie out of the champion filly Three Diamonds. He won the Little Brown Jug and a bunch of other big stakes races that year.

Pandy: What were some big races you won in Ohio?

Casey: I got to drive a great horse named Gallo Blue Chip, a tough horse who won the Meadowlands Pace with Dan Dube. Gallo Blue Chip was Horse of the Year in 2000. That same year, I won the Cleveland Classic at Northfield Park with him. The next year, 2001, I won the Battle Of Lake Erie, also at Northfield, with Gallo Blue Chip. He went in 1:51, which was an all-age track record at the time.

Speaking of Gallo Blue Chip, I upset him in the Hempt Memorial at Pocono in 2000. Teddy Wing was driving Gallo Blue Chip and I won the race with a colt named Sam Francisco, trained by Virgil Morgan, Jr.

Pandy: Are there any other favorite horses you recall?

Casey: You may remember a horse named Seatrain.

Pandy: Seatrain was one of my favorite horses of all time. He was the first gelding to win the Little Brown Jug, which he won in 1975 with Ben Webster driving. It was a quality group of horses in the Jug that year which included Nero, Whata Baron, and Osborne's Bret, three very fast horses.

Casey: I was actually the trainer of Seatrain for a short while. I had him in my barn towards the end of his career. We retired him at Garden State when he was 14 years old. I found a home for him and, you know something, that game son of a gun lived until he was 31 years old.

Pandy: Your wife Luanne Case is a trainer. I know you help her. What are you days like now?

Casey: I work hard, I can tell you that. I get up at 4:30 a.m. I clean the stalls and do whatever needs to be done, then I'm usually on the track jogging horses at 5:30. We train our horses at Pine Bush Training Facility in Pine Bush, New York. Great place.

Pandy: Do you like working with horses?

Casey: Oh yeah. Some mornings it's just me and a horse going around the track with the Catskill Mountains in the background. It's beautiful.

Pandy: Can you tell by driving a horse in training if a horse has talent? Or do you have to drive it in a race?

Casey: I can tell if a horse is going to be a decent racehorse during training.

Pandy: Obviously you've been unable to get back to driving horses. I know you miss it. Are you still trying to get back in the bike?

Casey: Yes, I'm still trying. I'd love to drive again, not full time, but I'd like to drive a few for Luanne. My son Ryan passed away in April. He was only 28. He always urged me to keep trying to get back to driving horses. He knew how much I loved it. I know he's looking over me and urging me to continue to try to do what I love.

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