SARATOGA SPRINGS — It’s Saratoga, which means it’s time to find out what the young ones can do.
Opening weekend at Saratoga Race Course traditionally features graded stakes races for 2-year-olds, including Friday’s Grade III Schuylerville for fillies.
That race will also provide a first glimpse of what a young trainer can do, too — while squaring off against his own father, no less.
Norm Casse will saddle Fightress in the Schuylerville, while his father, Mark, will be even busier in the paddock, with three fillies in the race, including the 5-2 morning-line favorite, Catherinethegreat.
Norm was a long-time assistant to his father, and frequently the face of Mark Casse Racing in Saratoga Springs, while his father tended to strings at Woodbine in Toronto and Churchill Downs in Louisville.
That put Norm in direct contact with stars such as Tepin, World Approval, Classic Empire and Catch a Glimpse in recent years. He struck out on his own as a head trainer once his father’s horses got through the Breeders’ Cup in November, and won his first race after an 0-for-9 start with Tiznoble on May 10 at Churchill.
His mission at Saratoga, where he has just six stalls, is simply to promote his new stable and drum up business, and if he can pull out a victory before the end of the meet, that would be a terrific bonus. Having the Casse name — his father was nominated to the National Racing Hall of Fame this year — doesn’t hurt, but Norm Casse has a strong enough reputation to stand on his own.
“I don’t read into it that much; I know Dad gets a little bit of a kick out of it,” Norm Casse said. “But I’m just trying to win races right now and make a name for myself. I look at it as I’m running my first stakes horse at Saratoga with a 2-year-old filly who won first time out and was very impressive.
“And not only is Dad in there, but [Steve] Asmussen’s in there, Todd Pletcher’s in there. It’s a who’s who of horse racing, guys I’ve looked up to all my entire life, and now here I am running against them. That’s how I see it.”
Despite the slow start, Casse’s barn, totaling 30 horses, has won six of 24 and has been in the money 12 times since he took out his head trainer license.
Fightress won by 4 3/4 lengths on a muddy, sealed track at Churchill on June 22, and is 12-1 against nine rivals.
“I like her demeanor,” Casse said. “She’s really professional. She just does everything you need her to do. And what I’m really excited about now is she’s training better than she did going into the race. She’s going to have to be better to win.”
Casse’s stalls are on the Oklahoma training track side of Union Avenue, while his father’s horses reside in their customary spot near the half-mile pole on the other side of the street.
Those stalls used to house the likes of Tepin and Classic Empire, two horses Norm Casse was responsible for on a daily basis.
In fact, he said he probably would have struck out on his own a year or so sooner if not for those two.
Classic Empire was the 2-year-old male Eclipse Award winner in 2016 who finished fourth in the 2017 Kentucky Derby after getting slammed around early in the race, then was second in the Preakness, leading late before being caught by Cloud Computing and losing by a head.
To say he had a checkered career would be an understatement. He won the championship in 2016 despite rearing out of the gate and dumping jockey Irad Ortiz Jr., and he sometimes would refuse to work in the mornings.
“It felt like it was going to be fun to go on a Derby run with Dad,” Casse said. “And I don’t regret that. We all know how that story played out.
“I learned a lot along the way with Classic Empire. So it was probably best that I was there with Classic Empire. He’s a horse that makes you become a professional. The best trainers can handle a horse like that.”
Tepin, meanwhile, took the Casses on a ride that included five Grade I victories and two Eclipse Awards for champion turf female.
“Tepin is probably the reason I’m on my own, because Tepin made me believe in myself and that I can do this,” Casse said. “I left probably the best job in horse racing.”
Besides juggling the responsibilities of his own stable now, Casse and Gabby Gaudet, one of the New York Racing Association’s on-air analysts, are planning a Sept. 8 wedding that is positioned on pretty much the only weekend either of them can be free from work.
Life is good.
“It’s more stress, but it doesn’t feel like it,” Casse said. “We’re planning a wedding, and you get really good at getting things done, put it that way.”
Daddy Is a Legend is 9-5 in the other stakes on the card, the Grade III Lake George for 3-year-old fillies on the turf.
Daddy Is a Legend is 0-for-3 this season while running against the best in her division, including Rushing Fall, who was supposed to run in the Lake George for trainer Chad Brown, but spiked a fever recently and will miss the race.
Brown still has a strong hand with Punked and Altea, who both began their racing careers in Europe before being transferred to Brown to race in North America.
Reach Gazette Sportswriter Mike MacAdam at 518-395-3146 or [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.
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