LEXINGTON, Ky. -- When Mark Casse talks about his 2-year-olds, he gives off a percolating vibe of expectation. These are the best juveniles the trainer ever has had in his barn, the most promising group, he said, "by far."
Casse has entered five of the bright youngsters in the upcoming Breeders' Cup Championships, to be run here at Keeneland on Friday and Saturday. And they, along with the outstanding filly Tepin, could deliver a breakthrough moment for their trainer.
It might seem somewhat peculiar to speak of a breakthrough for a guy who is 54 and for a decade has ranked among North America's top 20 trainers in terms of his stable's earnings. This is a man who began running the family farm in Florida at age 15 and has been training horses successfully since he was 17, when he won his first race at the Great Barrington Fair in Massachusetts, one of the few places that would license someone so young. But Casse's horses, based in Canada, where he has won seven Sovereign Awards as the nation's outstanding trainer, have migrated south in increasing numbers, like geese, until they have now become a burgeoning presence at America's most prominent racetracks.
In addition to his stable at Woodbine in Toronto, Casse has horses stabled at Belmont Park, Churchill Downs and, of course, at Keeneland. This year, he also has saddled horses at such venues as Santa Anita, Oaklawn Park, Saratoga and Gulfstream Park, as well as Parx and Indiana Downs. Suddenly they seem to be everywhere, these Casse horses. At No. 4, he has climbed to the loftiest spot he ever has reached in the national standings. And so now he is just one victory away from joining the elite trainers, those few who always seem to be in the paddock when the purses are richest and the rewards most precious. Just one victory away, a Breeders' Cup victory.
On a dank and windswept Tuesday morning, with dark clouds roiling and temperatures sputtering in the 50s, Catch A Glimpse pranced onto the muddy Keeneland track for a routine gallop. An athletic-looking chestnut, she skipped over the surface, looking around and enjoying the moment, her ears pricked. If Casse had to choose the one among his six Breeders' Cup horses that he thought had the best chance of delivering that breakthrough victory, Catch A Glimpse would be the one, he said.
In her most recent outing, she won the Natalma Stakes at Woodbine, and because the performance might be somewhat deceptive, she might be unappreciated at 5-1 in the morning line for Friday's $1 million Juvenile Fillies Turf. She got to the early lead unchallenged in moderate fractions, and so the Natalma victory, on paper, might look like it was handed to her. But look again. In the stretch, when jockey Florent Geroux shook the reins at her, Catch A Glimpse burst clear, running the final quarter-mile over the officially "good" turf in 23.95 seconds and winning without further encouragement by five lengths over Gamble's Ghost, a talented filly who went on to win the Mazarine Stakes in her next outing.
That same day at Woodbine, her stablemate Conquest Daddyo earned his way into the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf, where he is 12-1, with a victory in the Summer Stakes. He, probably best of all, provides a useful context for appreciating Catch A Glimpse's effort. She completed the mile in 1:35.95; he in 1:36.61. Even more telling, though, was that final move. Rallying from far back, Conquest Daddyo ran his final quarter-mile in 24.76 seconds, but even that was about four lengths slower than the filly's explosive surge.
"I honestly don't know how good she might be," Casse said about Catch A Glimpse. "But she could be a really good one. I want to see how she handles a battle."
In each of her two victories, she has controlled the pace, enjoyed the trip and dominated the race. But what is going to happen on Friday when Catch A Glimpse finds herself behind horses, as seems likely? Will she keep her poise? Will she settle and then deliver that explosive, overwhelming burst? If so, she'll define herself as a future star and her trainer as the newest member of an elite cohort.
In the Juvenile Turf, Casse also will send out Airoforce, an unbeaten colt who is the 4-1 second-choice in the morning line. Casse said he always has thought of Airoforce as one the most talented youngsters in the barn, and he seems capable on any sort of surface, turf or dirt. He won his debut at Kentucky Downs and then took Keeneland's Bourbon Stakes by more than two lengths over an officially "yielding" course. That ability to handle soft ground just might put him in the winner's circle on Friday.
Many of the European runners have come here in search of firm turf. Often that is a motive for their invasion. For horses that require firm ground if they're going to give their best efforts, the need becomes a tropism, a force that turns them this way. America's turf courses tend to be much harder than Europe's ancient ones, where horses routinely race over boggy ground. But after days of rain here and with considerably more expected on Wednesday, even if the sun makes more than a cameo appearance, they're unlikely to find any ground here that is very firm. And that's fine with Casse, whose turf horses all have performed well on relatively soft turf.
Tepin, in fact, gave the best performance of her career when she won the First Lady Stakes here by seven lengths on a "soft" course. She can run, Casse said, with any turf filly in the country, but he conceded she is facing some of the best in the world in Saturday's $2 million Breeder's Cup Mile, where she's 12-1 in the morning line. Although good last year as a 3-year-old, she has progressed significantly this year, winning four of her six outings, with her losses coming on the wire in photo finishes. And with a strong performance, she just might put herself in line to win an Eclipse Award as North America's outstanding turf filly or mare.
Conquest Big E also has won in wet conditions, on a sloppy track, right here at Keeneland. He is 30-1 in the morning line for Saturday's $2 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile, but make no mistake, even he could deliver that victory. A long-legged gray colt, he broke in the air when he made his debut and then became rank and recalcitrant. But despite all the trouble, he finished second, about a length behind Brody's Cause, who went on to win the Breeders' Futurity and now is the 7-2 favorite for the Juvenile. In his next outing, when the blinkers came off, Conquest Big E rated kindly and won handily despite racing wide throughout. He is probably as talented, Casse said, as any in the race and lacks only experience.
But with his recent win, he has confidence. Don't underestimate the power of confidence, Casse said. It can transform a good horse into a very good one and a very good one into a great one. And so, he explained, he works to instill confidence in his horses and encourage them to feel good about themselves and what they're doing.
The explanation was telling. It was the sort of explanation that could come only from somebody who has been working a lifetime with horses.
Anybody, given enough time, can learn to take care of a horse -- to feed and nurture him, even to train him to some level of fitness. But those elite few have a rare, almost intuitive talent for getting inside a horse's head. Casse is such a trainer, and he's just one victory away from making it official.