Three weeks ago, or before Hurricane Sandy came crashing into the U.S. Northeast, Woodbine’s estimable trainer Mark Casse had quietly shipped his pre-entries in the Breeders’ Cup to Kentucky, thus avoiding most of Mother Nature’s wrath – and all the attendant travel headaches some of his peers ran into.
Some entries, including Wise Dan, the favourite in the Mile, didn’t arrive until Wednesday, which gave them little time to settle in for the two-day $25.5-million event, the de facto world championship of horse racing, which begins here Friday at fabled Santa Anita racecourse.
“Louisville got some bad weather, but they didn’t get the weather they got in the East, so we were just fine,” Casse said. “I like coming to California and thank goodness we’re here, because anywhere they would have brought it in the East this year would have been ugly.
“That said, are we at a disadvantage? Of course we are. If we were running at Woodbine, we’d be very happy. Even going to Churchill Downs, we’re at a disadvantage. So we have to be a touch better to beat the local horses. It’s no different than in baseball or basketball. It’s home court. You always want to be at home.”
In all, there are 19 horses with a Canadian connection running at this year’s Breeders’ Cup, and Casse is saddling five of them. He has won five consecutive trainer’s titles at Toronto’s Woodbine Racetrack and leads the standing again this year, after saddling 85 winners through last weekend.
With the Ontario horse-racing industry at a crossroads, after losing its slot-machine revenues earlier this year, there is no better time for Casse to secure his first victory at the Breeders’ Cup than now. He came closest in 2008, with Sealy Hill, a runner-up to Forever Together in the Filly and Mare Turf event.
Oddsmakers have installed his Spring Venture the third choice at 5 to 1 in the Juvenile Fillies Turf, the third of six races scheduled for Friday’s card, but Casse says: “I think all five have a shot. Of course, I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t. Does one have a better shot than the other? If you go by the oddsmakers, then yes, Spring Venture would be the No.1 choice. Does she have a better chance than Spring in the Air [Juvenile Fillies] or Dynamic Sky [Juvenile]? Maybe a little bit, but not a lot.
“The one thing I find is, of my five entries, three are Canadian breds, which is saying a lot. For the Canadian breds to be able to compete at this level says a lot.”
One of the three is Pool Play, bred in Ontario at Windfields Farm and entered in the $5-million Classic, the signature and final event of the two-day program, which will be broadcast live in prime time on NBC Saturday for the first time. Game On Dude, last year’s runner-up to Drosselmeyer, is the early favourite and will have Rafael Bejarano aboard. Winnipeg-born Chantal Sutherland, who rode Game On Dude last year, lost the mount in the interim and subsequently announced her retirement from racing.
Pool Play, according to Casse, “is getting a lot of attention and the reason is, with all his starts, he’s only ran twice on dirt his entire life and both times, he’s won. He’s won a Grade 1 [the Stephen Foster Handicap] and he’s won a Grade 2 [the Hawthorne Gold Cup].
“I may be wrong, but I think the oddsmakers may have him a little high [at 30 to 1]. A lot of the experts are telling me, they think he has a shot, and I do too. I think he’s a mile-and-a-quarter horse. That’s his distance. I might be wrong, but I think they’re overlooking him a bit. I think he has a serious chance.”
Even running out of the one-hole?
“It doesn’t mean anything to him, because he trails the field and comes with a big run,” Casse explained. “Most importantly, for Pool Play to be successful, he needs a big pace. He needs them to run real fast early and he can sit back and then pick them up down the lane. If they go slow, and finish fast, he’s going to have a tough time.
“Some of my horses can change their running style, but he can’t. That’s him. So he has to rely on others for him to be successful.”
Casse also has high hopes for Dynamic Sky (bred by Arosa Farms), in the Juvenile, where Shanghai Bobby is the favourite at 2 to 1.
“He’s an interesting horse. He was third his first start. He came back and won a $200,000 stake in his second start. Then he went down to Keeneland and he was a really good second [to Joha] in the Grade 1 Breeders Futurity, which I thought he should have won. They have a system called Trakus, where they put a chip on each horse and it tells you the distance each horse runs in each race. He ran 72 feet farther than the winner, which equates to nine lengths. So he ran nine lengths farther than the winner, and got beat by a length-and-a-half. It was the first time he had ever run around two turns. So he had a big race.
“But he’s trained really well. He’s never run on dirt. And so this is his first time on dirt, but he’s bred for it, so he should like it.”
In fact, the only thing Casse’s stable of horses might not like this weekend is the heat, depending up how high the temperatures soar. The forecast high for Friday is a pleasant 25C and it could go to 29C by Saturday, with the real heat (33C) not expected until Sunday, when it won’t matter anymore. Great for humans. Less good for the horses.
“For us, especially coming from the East, horses love cold weather,” Casse said. “They love it more than we do. So it’s a little bit of a disadvantage coming into a warmer climate. Looking at what they’re predicting, I don’t think it’s going to be a big factor.If they got up, say, to the high 80s or low 90s [Fahrenheit], we would be at a big disadvantage.”