SARATOGA SPRINGS — In most pro sports, you don’t get inducted into your Hall of Fame until after your playing and/or coaching career is over, and frequently many years after that.
Thoroughbred racing in North America is different, and the requirement for trainers is eligibility after you’ve been licensed for 25 years. Retirement isn’t part of the conversation. So there are plaques at the National Racing Museum and Hall of Fame on Union Avenue for people who are very much still actively pursuing their careers, getting up at 5 a.m. every day to do the job, and in some cases enjoying some of their greatest achievements after they’ve already been inducted.
Steve Asmussen had been in the Hall of Fame for almost five years when he won his 9,446th race last week, breaking the all-time career record. P.G. Johnson was inducted in 1997, five years before — before — he scored the greatest victory of his career, Volponi’s upset in the 2002 Breeders’ Cup Classic.
If Got Stormy wins the Grade I Fourstardave at Saratoga Race Course on Saturday, it won’t be the greatest victory in trainer Mark Casse’s career, which reached Hall of Fame status when he was voted in last year and celebrated with a belated induction ceremony last Friday. But it would offer a glimpse of what it takes to get horses to run — and win — at the highest level, an obvious requirement of a career worthy of Hall of Fame consideration.
For one thing, Casse, in conjunction with owner Gary Barber who has never been one to shy away from a challenge, showed creativity and competitiveness for the simple fact that he has been willing to run Got Stormy against males, an avenue Casse explored with one of his best horses of all-time, Tepin, to great success.
In Saturday’s Fourstardave, Casse will saddle a 6-year-old mare who has already run against males eight times in her 29-race career.
“We’re still trying to get her back to her top form,” Casse said Wednesday morning. “I don’t know that it’s there yet, but her last works have been extremely good. [Jockey] Tyler [Gaffalione] breezed her the time before, and he said, ‘She’s back, she’s back.’ Because when she’s back and you ask her to go, she kind of snaps. And he thought her last race or two, she didn’t have the snap. But if you look at her form, this is normally about the time she gets better.”
Casse, never one to keep his emotions buttoned up, is thrilled just to have Got Stormy back in his barn for one last swing at a successful season. Barber put her up for auction at last November’s Fasig-Tipton Kentucky Mixed Stock sale as a broodmare prospect, and Spendthrift Farm scooped her up for a whopping $2.75 million.
“I knew what the reserve [minimum bid to sell] was, and the plan was for her to run another year if Gary didn’t sell her,” Casse said. “So when she went over the reserve, I said, ‘Well, I guess she won’t be running another year, and I won’t be training her.’
“We were happy for Gary, but we were disappointed. I was sitting with my wife in our office, and, ehhh . . . got a little tear or so, maybe.
“Then about 30 minutes later, I see who’s calling me, and it’s Ned Toffey from Spendthrift. I figure he’s just calling to ask me if there’s anything they need to know about her. He said, ‘I’m going to ask you a really dumb question, would you like to train her again, to run her next year?’ I just laughed and said, ‘Yeah, that is a dumb question.'”
Got Stormy has shown such an affinity for the Saratoga turf that she broke the course record for the Inner Turf while winning the Fourstardave in 1:32.00 in 2019, the first time a female had won the race in 35 editions.
The fact that she was even in the race showed the intuition of Casse and Barber, since Got Stormy had just run a week earlier, winning the De La Rose. Running back in a week, with a filly against males, then breaking a course record in a Grade I stakes … that’s about as out-of-the-box as it gets.
“She ran really well in the De La Rose,” Casse said. “At first, I wasn’t for doing that, and Gary was like, ‘Why not? I’ll make you a deal: You enter her, and if you tell me at any point in time you don’t think we should run, I won’t run.'”
“I remember it was, like, on the Thursday — race was Saturday — and she was going by [in a workout] and [exercise rider] Martin [Rivera] is like this,” Casse said, pulling his arms up as if he’s having a hard time restraining an energetic horse. “I called Gary up and said, ‘I think we got to run.'”
Got Stormy has won over $2 million and is a six-time graded stakes winner who finished second in the 2019 Breeders’ Cup Mile and a close fifth in the 2020 Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint.
She likes Saratoga, as long as the turf is firm.
“A lot of it is she likes the sharper turns here,” Casse said. “Again, she gets to use her quick foot. When you ask her, when she’s good and you hit the gas pedal, she takes off. The problem with her is she really only wants to run 7 1/2 furlongs, so she shuts the engine off, so you’ve got to coast the last sixteenth of a mile. And that’s why it”s so important for her to have hard ground.
“She broke the track record by a second, so that tells you how fast the turf was that day.”
Casse puts Got Stormy in the top 10, maybe top 5, of his all-time best horses. Besides Tepin, he’s won Breeders’ Cup races with World Approval, Classic Empire and Catch a Glimpse, and he solidified his Hall of Fame prospects in 2019 when he won two legs of the Triple Crown with different horses, War of Will (Preakness) and Sir Winston (Belmont Stakes).
His Hall of Fame acceptance speech was so moving and emotional that his wife Tina had to take the reins at the podium and read part of it for him.
Casse was 13 when his parents divorced. His mother, knowing how important it was for Mark to follow in his father Norman’s footsteps as a trainer, chose not to fight for custody, and let him live with his father in Florida to learn the profession that took him all the way to the Hall of Fame.
“It’s unbelievable,” Mark Casse said. “I guess a lot of people have been watching the video online or something, but everywhere we go people start talking about it. Then, when they start talking about it, I start tearing up again. I took a long time doing it, and it was very important to me, as you could tell. And I knew I had no shot getting through the part about my mom. I’ve hardly ever told anybody that story. The greatest sacrifice of all. My mom’s still alive, she’s 80 years old. So I told Tina, ‘I don’t know if I can get through this.’
“I’m not a great reader, and it’s really hard reading when you’re crying. I lost my place a couple times. But I’m very proud of it all.”
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