Friday, May 4, 2012

Derby dreams become the 'Norm' for young trainer

When Prospective, listed at odds of 30-1 in the morning line, leaves from post 12 in Saturday's Grade 1, $2-million Kentucky Derby, he'll be carrying not only rider Luis Contreras, but also the Derby dreams of assistant trainer Norman Casse.
Norm Casse keeps a close eye on Prospective

"I consider myself kind of a Derby historian," admits Norman, the 28-year-old assistant to his multiple Sovereign award-winning father, Mark. "The Kentucky Derby is the main reason that I do this. My family is well connected in the business, but that's not what got me into horse racing. I grew up in Louisville and the Kentucky Derby is much more than a horse race, it's an event that the community gathers around."

With the Derby only a day away, the assistant is fast realizing that what started months ago as a Derby dream with Prospective, when the Malibu Moon colt banked his first graded earnings by winning the G3 Grey Stakes at Woodbine, is soon to become reality.

"This is a dream come true," he says. "I haven't been excited about it until yesterday. I told dad it was the first day I felt excited. I guess it's because the preps are over now and we're officially in and we've done the last workout. Now, it's just galloping up to the race and it's kind of a relief and now I'm getting excited."

While Norman is now a fixture in the saddle each morning aboard his portly pony Chumlee (named for the tubby star of the TV series Pawn Stars), the assistant trainer was once aspiring to an entirely different type of athletic career.
Norm and Chumlee head to the track

"I played baseball my freshman year," says the Bellarmine University grad. "No exaggeration, I worked my butt off to make it to college level baseball and then I find out my next three years I'm going to have to miss the Kentucky Derby...that we'll be out of town that weekend and I thought to myself, ‘I don't think I’m gonna do this anymore and that's the truth!’"

The former first baseman figures he made the right decision.

"Look," he laughs. "You're 5'7”, you're not really that fast. Your arm is not that good...and well, let's face it, I'm not gonna make it to the majors. I better start focusing on stuff I can do."

So, Casse traded in his leather glove for the leather saddle and hasn't looked back - - although he's proud to say that his alma mater did reach out to him this week.

"This morning I got a package from the University of Bellarine," he says. "They sent me a baseball hat and a real nice note saying Bellarmine is rooting for Prospective."

The former first baseman, who admits his glove was bigger than his bat, will take two very important walks in 2012 - on Saturday, he will lead Prospective onto the track in the Kentucky Derby; and, in August, he will walk down the aisle with Prospective's long-time exercise rider Melanie Giddings, a former Woodbine jockey.

Melanie Giddings enjoying life at Churchill Downs

"We're getting married on a Tuesday at Saratoga," he grins. "We're keeping up with horse racing tradition and not having the wedding on a weekend. We'll have it on the one dark day of the meet."

Their mutual love of horse racing is an integral part of their relationship.

"Obviously, she's beautiful, and she's funny," starts Norman. "But, she also wants to watch TVG and HRTV every day and go to the races and as proud as I am that we have a Derby horse, she's just as proud. That's a once in a lifetime deal to find someone like that."

Giddings, a native of Cobourg, Ontario, was Prospective's primary rider each and every morning until broken ribs kept her from her daily duties. While she's back in the saddle again, following a three-week break, she looks back fondly on the time she spent with the horse as a two-year-old preparing him for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

"It's nice to see them grow up," says Giddings. "You see them get better and better and he's a classy horse to ride and we're really proud of him."

Norman also sees a change in the Derby-bound colt from a year ago.

"He was like a chubby kid (last year)," says Casse, of his horse who finished last of 13 in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. "Wayne Lukas was making fun of us at Breeders' Cup this time last year saying our horse was a little bit on the chubby side, but he saw him in the Spring and he said, 'That's a serious racehorse now.’

“He's a much more imposing figure than he was before. He's grown up. I'm there right after he gallops and pulls up and he doesn't even take a deep breath. He's so fit compared to where he was before, it's amazing."
Melanie and Northern Passion at November's Breeders' Cup

Giddings, shy in conversation, despite the bold and dangerous nature of her vocation, is proud of their combined efforts in preparing Prospective for his Derby run.

"I'm very proud of Norm," she says. "He works hard and he's earned everything he's got and he's learned from one of the best, his dad. He takes good pride in it. He wouldn't miss a day here for anything. He looks forward to this Saturday every year whether he's in it or not."

She also reveals that it's not uncommon for Prospective's practice runs to feature Norm's own version of Derby drama.

Good luck to Norm and Prospective on Saturday!
"He practices race calls when the horses are breezing," she laughs, sheepishly. "Norman likes to joke around. He enjoys his job. I swear he can do every Derby race call word for word. He's obsessed with it."

Norman, who is reluctant to make a race prediction at this point, is preparing himself for the race with a positive frame of mind.

"I can't make those types of predictions because this is the best field since 2006," says Casse. "My prediction is that we'll run a lot better than people will give us credit for. After Saturday, a lot more people will know who Prospective is. I think he has a lot of fight in him. He really tries and if things go his way and he likes the track the way we think he does, he's going to right there because he puts out the maximum effort."

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