Oaklawn Barn Notes
Classic Empire, last year’s 2-year-old champion and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner, jogged a mile and galloped a mile during an uneventful training session shortly after the track opened at 7 a.m. At noon he schooled in the indoor paddock and on the infield grass, overseen by Norman Casse, son of trainer Mark Casse.
Mark Casse, Classic Empire’s trainer, won a record ninth Sovereign Award as Canada’s outstanding trainer and his sixth in a row on Thursday evening. He also is a finalist for America’s National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. Casse’s $126,555,657 in career purse earnings rank No. 10 in North America. Every trainer above him is in the Hall of Fame except the all-time leader, Todd Pletcher ($335 million), who has not yet trained the 25 years required for eligibility.
Casse was Churchill Downs’ leading trainer in 1988 but not long afterward moved his main base to Canada. Several years ago, he re-established a major U.S. presence — with his career taking off to even greater heights, including training Eclipse Award champions Tepin and Classic Empire.
Casse says he’s not on the Hall of Fame ballot if not for the influence of John Oxley, owner of Classic Empire, and Norman, who oversees the stable’s Churchill Downs, Saratoga and Palm Meadows operations at various times of the year. Mark Casse said Norman prodded him to put a renewed emphasis on racing in the States.
“He’d say, ‘Dad, we’ve got to go back to Kentucky,’” Mark Casse said. “Of course, he’s a Kentucky boy, Louisville-born.” He said that move was further greased when politicians attempted to ravage the casino-assisted purse funding for Canadian horse racing.
Oxley, who won the 2001 Kentucky Derby with the John Ward-trained Monarchos, had cut way back on his racing operation when he became a Casse client during the same time frame. They had immediate success, and Oxley soon was back buying aggressively at the sales. Other major owners flocked to Casse, who quickly became a powerful force in the U.S. along with Canada.
“I was kind of going along very nicely in Toronto, doing my thing every year and was quite happy,” Casse said. “With Norman pushing, with Mr. Oxley behind us, it allowed us to focus more in the U.S. You are only as good as the players that you have. Mr. Oxley was the guy who let us go and buy those horses that we wanted. We’ve had a lot of luck for him. When they have that much faith in you, you want to accomplish even that much more. And he’s a true gentleman of the game as well. So it’s special, definitely special.
“We’ve really only been focusing on the U.S. in the last four or five years. Then boom, we have the Tepins and Catch A Glimpses, the Classic Empires. Everybody wakes up and says, ‘Hey, he’s doing pretty good.’ So I’ve become a 38-year overnight sensation.”
Whether he gets in the Hall of Fame this year or not, Casse said of being on the ballot, “It’s a huge honor just to be there. I went to the Hall of Fame with my dad when I was 8 or 9 years old at Saratoga. I told him then, ‘I’m going to be in the Hall of Fame some day, Dad.’ Since I was a little boy, horse racing has been my life, forever.”
Casse said his dad, the late Ocala horseman Norm Casse, had immeasurable influence throughout his career and that his wife, Tina, encouraged the highly successful move to Canada. Casse was inducted into Canada’s racing hall of fame last year, when he met the minimum age of 55.
“I wouldn’t be up for the (North America) Hall of Fame if it weren’t for my dad, my wife, Mr. Oxley or Norman,” he said. “If it wasn’t for my dad and Tina, I wouldn’t have been nearly as successful in Canada. Norman and Mr. Oxley helped us go to the forefront in the U.S.”
Calumet Farm’s Rebel runner-up Sonneteer galloped and schooled in the starting gate Friday morning and was scheduled to school between races in the indoor paddock at Oaklawn under the supervision of assistant trainer Julie Clark.
Sonneteer is winless in nine starts, with four seconds and two thirds, but has earned $234,445. After being ridden in the Rebel by Richard Eramia, the son of Midnight Lute will have three-time Kentucky Derby winner Kent Desormeaux in the saddle Saturday.
Kent Desormeaux has ridden Sonneteer five times for his brother, trainer Keith Desormeaux, including a fourth-place finish in the California Derby that was the colt’s only stakes foray until the Rebel. Kent said his brother asked him about coming to Arkansas for the Rebel. Instead, Kent and his agent opted to stay and ride at Santa Anita, where the Hall of Fame jockey had more business, including in a Grade I race. Sonneteer, meanwhile, rallied to take second at 112-1 odds in the $900,000 Rebel, two lengths behind unbeaten Malagacy.
“He told me the horse was improving dramatically in the mornings,” Kent said. “He got to say ‘I told you so’ afterwards…. But my agent and I, and then Keith, decided that I should stay and ride the six horses I was on, rather than to come and ride Sonneteer, who was a longshot. But Keith told me that the horse was going to run very well and would enjoy the distance, that the farther we go, the better off he’ll be. Kind of like Real Quiet. He didn’t show that talent until he was able to run them into the ground in the distance races.”
Real Quiet was Kent Desormeaux’s first Kentucky Derby winner, who in 1998 lost the Triple Crown by a nose in the Belmont Stakes. Real Quiet needed seven starts before winning, including two defeats at Santa Fe, N.M.
“I was very surprised, yes,” Kent said of Sonneteer’s big Rebel performance. “I had breezed him a couple of times, though. He’s getting stronger, getting faster, quite honestly. His muscles are growing up to his bones. He’s a big boy.”
He said he had been discussing the Arkansas Derby with his brother since the Rebel.
“‘What am I going to do? What am I going to do?’” Kent said. “We just came to the conclusion that we both would like to take our best chances. We’re family, so we’ll keep it in the family to boot.
“God forbid, I stay home and he runs one, two, three in fine fashion. And then it would be impossible to get on him.”