Believe it or not, Canada’s leading trainer for a dozen years – Mark Casse – does not have a horse entered in the $1-million Queen’s Plate on Sunday.
But that doesn’t mean the 60-year-old conditioner, who has been inducted into two Halls of Fame, is sitting idle somewhere.
He’s not physically at Woodbine – very rarely indeed is he there any more – but he has a stable of 75-80 horses at Woodbine, and a farm north of the city that shuttles horses back and forth to the track several times a day.
On Saturday and Sunday, Casse will start a total of 35 horses, 14 of them on Saturday, 21 of them on Sunday (a day with an unusually high number of races: 13). The humidex this weekend hovers at 40 degrees C, but there is a blizzard of Casse entrants.
On Saturday, Casse won three of the 11 races. And of the four stakes races held, he won half of them.
The first must have been a balm of sorts. Casse went into the 2017 Kentucky Derby with the winterbook favourite, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner, Classic Empire. It seemed as if his dream was finally at hand. But Classic Empire was unpredictable, with a mind of his own, and finished a troubled fourth. He did finish second in the Preakness, but retired with a series of physical problems.
Now Casse trains Classic Empire’s son, First Empire, owned by 86-year-old Dick Bonnycastle, who at one point was the world’s largest publisher of the romance novels, Harlequin, as well as chairman of Torstar, which produces the Toronto Star newspaper.
Bonnycastle’s black and white harlequin silks have rarely been seen in recent years. He hasn’t had any major racing adventures since his Gold Strike was champion 3-year-old filly in Canada in 2005. His stable has made only three starts this season, all by First Empire. But the harlequins seem to be back, under Casse’s guidance. First Empire was a $60,000 purchase last fall.
With two starts under his belt, both at Woodbine, First Empire won the $140,250 Soaring Free Stakes on Saturday over the turf, a prep for the Breeders Win and You’re In race, the $400,000 Summer Stakes on Sept. 19. Ridden by Patrick Husbands, First Empire went off as the second choice at 5 to 2, and pressed an Indiana shipper, Heaven Street, trained by Steve Asmussen for much of the race, sitting to his outside.
First Empire took command, and held off a determined rally by the silver-tailed Degree of Risk, a 9 to 1 shot owned by Godolphin Stable and trained by Eoin Harty. Degree of Risk was making his debut on turf. Heaven Street finished third.
Husbands thought him okay in the mornings when breezing him, but “on the grass, as he’s shown in his last two races, he’s a different horse.
“I had so much horse swinging for home, I knew it would take a really nice horse to beat him.”
Casse won the next stakes race, too, the $127,250 Catch A Glimpse Stakes for 2-year-old fillies with Diabolic, an Irish-bred filly he had already unleashed in late July to win the My Dear Stakes on Tapeta. A new face at Woodbine, Antonio Gallardo had won that race with Diabolic, and Casse put him on her again.
The even-money favourite, Diabolic acted up in the starting gate and was unhurried early while Silver Magnetized (who is not very silver) and Curlin Candy, a daughter of former Horse of the Year Caren, duked it out on the lead. After the half-mile mark in the 6 ½ furlong test, Gallardo roused Diabolic, took aim at the leaders and won by a length in 1:15.81. (First Empire had run the same distance in 1:15.44.)
The grey filly, Royal Engagement finished second, while Mrs. Barbara was third. Mrs. Barbara is also trained by Casse.
The Catch A Glimpse is a prep for the $400,000 Natalma Stakes on Sept. 19, also a Breeders’ Cup Win and You’re In. And by the way, Catch A Glimpse won the Natalma, and the Breeders Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, enroute to being chosen Canada’s Horse of the Year in 2015 – for Casse.
Gallardo said he settled the filly off the pace, tried to save some ground and found a seam of daylight between horses to hurtle to the lead. “She’s a nice filly and I saw the inside hole and I only asked her a little bit,” he said. “And she just rolled.”
She’s a versatile type, Gallardo said. It bodes well for the future.
Casse did not win the $160,800 Singspiel at 1 ¼ miles on the E.P. Taylor Turf course, because he didn’t have an entry in the race.
He did finished second with Our Secret Agent in the $155,400 Seaway Stakes.
Both races were won with spectacular efforts.
Corelli, a 6-year-old gelding that has been running at all the best tracks in the United States for the Augustin Stable, (He was third in the United Nations at Monmouth Park last year), drew the outside post of eight horses. And that wasn’t ideal. Woodbine’s leading jockey Kazushi Kimura immediately turned left and found a spot on the rail from the gate, but he had to find his way through a wall of horses in the stretch. When he did find it, he strode away from the rest with a quick turn of foot and won by 1 ¾ lengths.
He wasn’t the only one flying at the end: So was English Conqueror, whose previous claim to fame had been finishing third in the 1 ½ mile Breeders’ Stakes last year behind Belichick. He faced Belichick again, and this time got the measure of him.
Belichick, the second choice at 5 to 2, pressed pacesetter Peace of Ekati, and took over the lead in early stretch, at the mile mark.
Kimura had to ride with cool veins to get his chance, but says he pays close attention to racelines, and “watching horses, watching jockeys,” and just hoped he would find the room. And he did.
Collier, so easy to see with his big white blaze leading the way, won three times in England before he moved to North America in 2020.
And Boardroom, a $475,000 purchase from a 2-year-old sale two years ago by the LNJ Foxwood Stakes, has raced exclusively in Canada, winning four of six starts, including the Duchess Stakes last year and the Whimsical this year, took complete command of the $155,400 Seaway Stakes at seven furlongs on the Tapeta for trainer Josie Carroll.
It was the easiest of wins.
Boardroom, a daughter of Commissioner, had the outside post, too, like Corelli, and settled into fourth place, and when she finally moved, swooping around her competition, she won by 4 ½ lengths in 1:22.02.
Our Secret Agent was second while Amalfi Coast finished third, pinned on the rail.
“I was on control of the race every single step of the way,” said jockey Luis Contreras. “She always surprised me, even in the morning and the afternoon. Every race, she gave me. She showed me some improvement, so I’m very happy with this filly. I love her.”
Carroll said Boardroom is a very special filly, always showing talent, but blossoming as she’s aged.
So, as far as Casse is concerned, Sunday is another day.