The Performer: Mark Casse, horse trainer

On intuition, professional rivalries and needing to win to pay the bills.

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Horse trainer Mark Casse at Winding Oaks Farm in Ocala, Fla. on April 17, 2011. Photograph by Bob Croslin

Date of birth: 02/14/61
First win: 08/21/78
Total wins at Woodbine: 869
Number of horses in his Woodbine stable: 80
Most valuable horse in his care: $500,000
Biggest purse won: $1,000,000
Name of the horse that won it: Turf War

It’s called the sport of kings for a reason. The thoroughbreds in Mark Casse’s care belong to an elite few: oil tycoons, advisers to American presidents and the megabucks owner of a National Hockey League team. It’s a group accustomed to success, and that’s what Casse delivers. For the past five years, horses trained at his stable have had the highest winnings at Woodbine Racetrack, the jewel of Canadian racing. Casse juggles the demands of his owners, jockeys and horses in a game where you have to win to get paid. He spoke with Canadian Business contributor Laura Cameron.

When you were 12 years old, you saw Secretariat win the Kentucky Derby. Did that experience influence your career choice?
My father had a horse vanning [transportation] company, and I rode with him from Florida to Churchill Downs to see the Kentucky Derby. I can still remember watching Secretariat run. I was on the first floor, and when those horses ran by, it felt like an earthquake—it gave me chills all over. I had wanted to be a horse trainer since I was about 10, but Secretariat was what put it over the top.

There are a lot of gamblers who would love to be able to see what you see when you look at a horse. How did you develop the intuition for picking thoroughbreds?
As my dad says, if it doesn’t whinny, I don’t know a whole lot about it. When you focus on one thing and one thing only, usually you can be pretty good at it. When a horse is sold, they have the horse’s family history on a piece of paper. So that’s one part of it, being able to read a catalogue page, and I’ve been doing that since I was about 10. Then, you have to look at the horse physically, because if the horse doesn’t have the ability to stay sound, he won’t be competitive. You look at its conformation [its bone and muscle structure and the proportions of its body], you look at its athletic ability. You can be the best trainer, but if your horse can’t run, it’s not going to do you a lot of good.

How do you manage your relationships with your clients, who actually own the horses you’re training?
Each owner is an individual with different demands. One of my clients is Eugene Melnyk, who owns the Ottawa Senators. Another one of my biggest owners is an oil tycoon named John Oxley. These people have been very successful in their business, and they love racing. Part of my job is to decide what kind of communication is needed, and hopefully, if I do a good job, they are my client for a long time. All that being said, the bottom line is you have to win.

Is there a lot of competition among the horse trainers to work with particular jockeys?
Yes, you compete for the riders. The rider has an agent who goes out and books mounts for them. Their job is to get the best horse for each race, so if you are winning, you have a better shot at getting the best riders.

I was very fortunate. About 10 years ago, a man who was working for me asked me to watch his brother ride. He had just come to Canada from Barbados. I had been the general manager of a farm that sold horses, and I was starting to train for the owner. He had a lot of bad-acting horses, but this rider could get along with anything. His name is Patrick Husbands, and he has won seven Sovereign Awards for Canada’s Outstanding Rider. He’s won about 750 races for me.

Jockeys have a reputation for being pretty intense characters. What’s it like dealing with them?
As far as the riders go, there really isn’t a problem. I feel bad for them, for one thing: they don’t hardly get to eat, and they’re going out and riding a 1,000-pound animal going 40 miles per hour without a lot of steering. I’ve never ridden a race, but when I was younger I used to gallop and breeze horses, so I know how difficult it is. I try to respect the rider, and the rider respects me. That’s kind of how I get through life.

Does all of your income come from your horses’ winnings?
A client pays me a certain amount of money per day to take care of their horse, and the trainer gets a 10% cut if the horse wins a race. Now, it sounds all nice because our horses won about $5 million last year, so you think Mark made $500,000. It doesn’t work that way—I wish it did. What we receive to take care of the horse per day does not pay for the actual cost, so I have to dip into the winnings. If I don’t win, at the end of the year I’m going to be in the hole.

How do you deal with the pressure of knowing that you have to win to make
a living?

I just never think I’m going to lose. I have a lot of confidence, and I’ve been doing this for a long time. As much as I love it, it’s a game. I have a great life and a wonderful family, and that’s not going to be taken away from me. I’m happy to do what I do. We do all right, and I have no complaints. But we don’t just do it for the money—we do it because it’s an exciting life, and I’m a competitive person. And I love horses.

You say you’re competitive—do you have rivalries with the other trainers?
I have a great respect for [Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame member] Roger Attfield. Roger and I get along very well. I mean, I want to beat him, but it’s not because he’s Roger Attfield—it’s because he’s the competition. Do we all get along? No. There’s a lot of jealousy and animosity between the trainers. But we didn’t get where we are by liking to lose.

How do you personally measure success?
Like I said, it’s nice to win—but I feel even more successful that I can have my family around me. My wife, Tina, who I’ve been married to for about 10 years, handles the money and all of the employees. My assistant trainer is my oldest son, Norman. He has the same passion for it that I do. It’s funny. His didn’t come until he was a little older. He got hooked about five years ago when we ran a horse in the Kentucky Derby. He knew at that time that he wanted to be a trainer.

What do you still want to achieve?
Well, I would like to win the Queen’s Plate. Obviously, my No. 1 goal is to win the Kentucky Derby. The other goal would be if my kids choose to pursue this, to see them go out and be successful—but mostly, the Kentucky Derby.