Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Casse 'Passion'-ate about his Breeders' Cup prospects

Mark Casse, Woodbine’s runaway leading trainer with 108 wins, will send out a pair of talented two-year-olds – Northern Passion in the Juvenile Fillies and Prospective in the Juvenile – in this weekend’s Breeders’ Cup, at Churchill Downs.

John C. Oxley's Northern Passion, trained by Mark Casse

It has been a remarkable campaign for Casse, who established a new record for a Woodbine meeting in October, by breaking the late Frank Passero’s mark of 89 wins set in 1995.

Both of Casse’s juveniles are owned by John C. Oxley, and the potent owner/trainer combo, boasting 15 wins from 72 starters in 2011, were away to a great start on Sunday’s opening day card at Churchill Downs, with a win, a third and a fast-closing fifth from three starters, all of whom had recently raced over Woodbine’s Polytrack.

“We ran a maiden, Sky High Lady, and she was third, beaten about a length,” said Casse, over the phone from Kentucky. “Then we ran a filly called Golden History in the Pocahantas. She ran a 57 Beyer (speed figure) when she broke her maiden at Woodbine, and her first start on the dirt she was closing, finished fifth, but only beaten three lengths in a Grade 2, after closing about ten lengths and improved her Beyer by 20 points. In the last race, we ran a filly called Delightful Magic who was beaten twice at Woodbine and she came back and won by seven lengths at Churchill. So that gave us (Casse and Oxley) confidence that our ‘Poly’ form could compete on the dirt.”

Sunday's success helped Casse and Oxley decide that Northern Passion, who earned a berth in the Breeders’ Cup with a sparkling victory on the turf in the Grade 3 Natalma, would run in the Juvenile Fillies on the dirt, rather than the turf counterpart.

“This was not a hasty decision,” said Casse. “This was discussed over a period of ten days. We made the final decision the night before, after running those three horses.”

Northern Passion in the Woodbine walking ring

The conditioner is very familiar with Churchill Downs, having been their leading trainer in the 1988 Spring Meet. This year he already won the Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs with Pool Play, and Casse is of the opinion that his Woodbine talent won’t be hindered by a surface change under the famous twin spires.

“I’ve said for the last five years, Churchill Downs is as close to Polytrack as any dirt track,” offered Casse. “Probably, more so, in the spring than in the fall. The problem is, in the fall, if it gets cold, the surface will get a little looser. The warmer it is, the harder it is and the less the horses penetrate the surface. It looks like we’ll have sixty-plus degrees on Friday and Saturday which will allow Churchill Downs to put a lot of water on the track and it’ll be pretty tight. They shouldn’t have trouble handling it.”

The decision to enter Northern Passion, an Ontario-bred daughter of First Samurai-A Touch of Glory, in Friday’s Juvenile Fillies was, also, partly the result of some astute handicapping.

“Whenever I analyze any race, I usually take out the top horse because I think when you’re dealing with racing, anything is possible,” started Casse. “Once you eliminate the top horse out of the Juvenile, My Miss Aurelia, I thought that the turf race was tougher. I knew Todd (Pletcher) was going to the (Juvenile Fillies Turf) turf with Stopshoppingmaria. It also has the European filly that has beaten the boys (Dear Lavinia) going in there. You have Wayne Catalano’s filly (Stephanie’s Kitten), we beat her in the Natalma, but she had a wide trip and we had a perfect trip.”

It’s an honest bit of handicapping by Casse, who admits to being somewhat surprised by his filly’s pinnacle performance in the Natalma.

“I never thought for an instant that turf was necessarily her best surface. I simply ran her there (in the Natalma) because that’s what was there,” said Casse. “She’s bred to get over the dirt and last year we brought Delightful Mary down here and she ran quite well (finishing third in the Juvenile Fillies). I just thought her works were good enough on the dirt to give her a shot in the dirt.”

Northern Passion wins the Natalma

Northern Passion, who has two wins and a second from three lifetime starts, breezed five furlongs over the Churchill Downs dirt in 1:02 on October 24. A victory this Saturday on the dirt would mark a third successful surface for the versatile filly, but Casse is adamant the choice between turf or dirt at Churchill, would each have offered their own new challenge.

“Our (Woodbine’s) turf course is an entirely different world compared to Churchill Downs turf course,” starts Casse. “Churchill Downs turf has very sharp turns, they’ll run around two turns, and it’s a close and compact field. There’ll be a lot of jostling and horses getting in trouble.”

Northern Passion wins the Natalma

The point is well-taken as Northern Passion’s Natalma score came over a one-turn mile on Woodbine’s E.P Taylor Turf Course.

“If they were running the race on the weekend at Woodbine, I probably would have run her on the grass, even though I think it’s tougher, simply because we were running on the same track she’d won on,” said Casse. “The dirt is a different surface, but the (Churchill Downs) turf is a different turf course. So either way I went, it was going to be a change.”

Casse’s other Breeders’ Cup starter, Prospective, arrives at Churchill Downs off an impressive victory in the Grade 3 Grey Stakes, on the Woodbine Polytrack. The conditioner is enthused with how the Kentucky-bred son of Malibu Moon-Spirited Away has taken to his new Kentucky home.

“In my opinion, Prospective is training the best I’ve ever seen him train,” said Casse. “Prospective thinks he can win the Breeders’ Cup. Now, I don’t know whether he’s good enough, but Prospective thinks he is. He’s come down here and thinks he’s a star. He’s impressed a lot of people and he’s impressed me. But, you don’t know how good they are until they start running and we’ll find that out on Saturday.”

Prospective wins the Grey Stakes

Dismissed at odds of 30-1 on the morning line for Saturday’s Juvenile, the dark bay colt has bolstered his resume with a pair of strong works over the Churchill Downs main track. His most recent effort, a five furlong breeze timed in 1:01.20, was eighth-fastest of 33 works at the distance on October 30.

“He’s big, he’s strong and he’s improving each race,” said Casse. “He’ll have to be competitive but he’s definitely going in the right direction.”

Both of Casse’s starters will benefit from the services of Woodbine’s leading rider Luis Contreras. The talented jock, who hails from Mexico City, has 185 wins at Woodbine this meet and is on pace to break Mickey Walls’ Woodbine seasonal win record of 221, set in 1991. The well-regarded Contreras swept the Canadian Classics this year taking the Queen’s Plate with Inglorious and the Prince of Wales and Breeders’ Stakes with Pender Harbour.

Prospective in the famous Oxley silks at Woodbine

“Luis has a lot of confidence in both horses, which is always a good thing,” said Casse. “He’s the seventh leading rider in North America and that says something in itself. I think Luis can ride with anybody and I’m quite happy and excited to have him.”

Contreras waves to the grandstand after winning with Northern Passion

Both Prospective and Northern Passion, with three starts each under their belt, have experience racing in full fields, which Casse believes will work to their advantage.

“It’s definitely an advantage,” said Casse. “One thing about it, both horses have run enough and they’ve never had complete smooth sailing. Prospective has been roughed up enough in his first three starts, as well as Northern Passion, that I don’t think they’ll get flustered if things don’t go their way.”

Casse’s own experience, and success, in Kentucky could go a long way towards his terrific twosome finding another level on Breeders’ Cup weekend.

“I know Churchill Downs probably just as well as I know Woodbine,” said Casse. “It’s kind of like a homecoming for me, because this is where I started my career.”

And wouldn’t Churchill Downs be just the place to define a career, at a home away from home, and the most storied track in North America.

Will Casse have his arms raised victorious at the Breeders' Cup?


"I just did like Simon says," - - Jockey Emile Ramsammy could barely contain his pleasure after winning the Ontario Fashion Stakes aboard Atlantic Hurricane for trainer Stuart SIMON.


"Reimer is on thin ice and begins to back through them now..." - - Dan Loiselle gets in on the hockey punning action, during the debut of the temporarily front-running Reimer, a two-year-old named in honour of Toronto Maple Leafs goalkeeper James Reimer.

Loiselle's masterpiece topped a series of Tweets surrounding the debut, which included:

"Reimer running at Woodbine. The only posts for him today is Post 1 in the second race. #Leafs" - courtesy of Toronto Sun columnist Rob Longley.


"If Reimer, 15-1 on the ML, wins you'll definitely pad your bank account" - courtesy of yours truly.

Reimer debuts at Woodbine

This and That

Congratulations are in order to jockey Francine Villeneuve. The Fort Erie Times reports that, Villeneuve earns win 1,000 - Jockey plans to retire after milestone victory:

Villeneuve began her career on the racetrack in 1984 when she took a summer job as a hot walker at Woodbine in Toronto. Her ability around horses and her small stature made her a natural for a future in the saddle. Her long career has seen its share of memorable occasions including riding Wilderness Song to a second place finish in the 1991 Queen's Plate and competing in the Breeders' Cup Distaff, finishing second in the Prince of Wales on Autumn Snow in 2005 and winning the Avelino Gomez Memorial Award for contributions to racing.

Francine took a three-year hiatus from race riding and returned to Fort Erie in 2010 with one goal; to reach the 1,000 win milestone.

Lawrence Scanlan took a tour of Kentucky horse country including trips to Adena, Three Chimney and Old Friends for a Globe & Mail piece entitled, Kentucky: Head into the heartland of thoroughbreds and bourbon:
Visitors to the Lexington area, especially the horsey set, make a point of visiting farms to see favourite horses now standing at stud. I went first to Adena Springs, a 970-hectare operation that was designed by Frank Stronach, the Canadian entrepreneur and racetrack owner who made his fortune in auto parts. He won the outstanding-breeder award seven times in one decade – an unprecedented honour. Some farms here are steeped in history, but this one is almost brand new. Think brownstone and clock tower, think gatehouse with black bars, think what a German speaker would call spitze (a useful word that means peak or pinnacle).

Stallions at Adena Springs, as elsewhere, are paraded out to be photographed and admired, which must be tiresome. But a stallion has a good life otherwise.

A betting blog covers the story of Tamarind Hall set to give trainer Jeremiah Englehart his Breeders’ Cup debut in the Filly and Mare Sprint:
It was an instant success as the daughter of Graeme Hall, out of Turner’s Hall by Forest Wildcat, grabbed the first opportunity she was presented at the highest level and became a graded stakes winner.

It was the Grade 3 Bed o’ Roses Handicap at Belmont Park on 3 July, 2011, over a distance of seven furlongs.

Jockey D Cohen who took over from Patrick Husbands, guided the filly to a win against a pretty decent lineup, and covered the distance in 1 minute and 23.82 seconds on dirt, as Kid Kate and Spa City Princess finished second and third, respectively.

With success came confidence, as her connections looked to conquer a grade 1 race with even tougher lineup. It could’ve ended so well, but it wasn’t that bad as Tamarind Hall in her first attempt in the grade 1 event finished third.

Finally, I'll be off to Kentucky on Wednesday morning to cover the Breeders' Cup on behalf of my employers Woodbine Entertainment Group! I'll do my best over the coming days to keep track of all the Canadian content at Churchill via Twitter, this blog and the official WEG Breeders' Cup News Page which includes stories, video and more. Here's a snippet from a feature on the filly Hard Not to Like:

A daughter of Hard Spun, she is a homebred out of Williamson’s Like A Gem who was a
popular Woodbine runner with six wins, three seconds and a pair of thirds in 18 lifetime starts. Three of Like A Gem’s wins were added-money events, including the Wonder Where and River Memories over the E.P Taylor Turf Course as well as the Maple Leaf Stakes over the Polytrack.

The grey filly, who sports a record of three wins and a fifth from four lifetime starts all on the E.P Taylor, won at first asking on July 30, rallying from just off the pace to capture a six furlong sprint in a time of 1:09.81. When the prep for the Natalma Stakes did not fill, Cox entered the enterprising filly in the prep for the Summer Stakes, held on August 26, instead and she responded with an impressive length and a quarter victory, earning a 76 Beyer Speed Figure in the process.

"I think she's a very talented filly and has wound up against the boys just because the right race was there," said Cox.

The lovely Hard Not to Like, aka 'Lila' in her Woodbine stall

Still Need More?
As always, keep track of the latest goings on in the world of horse racing by clicking into TripleDeadHeat's Woodbine News page or join in on the conversation by following TripleDeadHeat on Twitter.


I was in the walking ring for a pair of turf stakes this past weekend. Below find photos of the contenders in the River Memories (won by Oregon Lady) and the Labeeb (won by Stormy Lord). As always, double-left click the picture to enlarge it, and use your 'BACK' button to return to the photo essay.


Tyler Pizarro looking pretty happy about his ride on Valli with a Vow

Trippi's Sailor didn't have the best of trips

Oregon Lady wins the River Memories

Moment of Majesty, aka 'MOM', and jockey Justin Stein

Magic Broomstick, Halloween hunchbet many expected to sweep to victory


A round of applause for Happy Clapper!


Stormy Lord answered the prayers of all who bet on him

Silver Rock looking grey't in the walking ring

Merkabah had a humbug kinda day

Kara's Orientation would still find the lead from Post 11

Isn't he handsome? The gorgeous Hollinger...

Hollinger and Tyler Pizarro head to the track

No luck of the Irish for Celtic Conviction today

Dude. Casual Dude.

If Pool Play can do it...

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