DEL MAR, Calif. — In the few breaks he has when he’s not trying to add to his Hall of Fame resume, trainer Mark Casse spends his spare time coaching youth baseball – a natural hobby for a man whose career has been built on developing fresh talent. He sees all sorts of kids come his way for guidance, ones who already have natural athletic instincts and the foundation of the game figured out, and ones who have some ability, but no real idea how to make plays happen in the heat of the moment.
It’s the latter proteges Casse ends up being most proud of when they progress, because they’re the ones who had to work the hardest to get on the field to begin with. It’s the same feeling he has when he ponders the career trajectory of multiple Grade 1 winner Got Stormy, especially as she steps to the plate in the ninth inning of her career trying to knock one more homer clear over the fence.
“I always tell my son, Colby, who plays baseball, I compare training horses to training young athletes,” Casse said. “The ones who know everything are easy because you can just let them do their thing. What I’m proud of are the World Approvals, the Tepins, the Got Stormys. They started out being average and became great.”
The first two names Casse mentioned are themselves former Breeders’ Cup winners with divisional king World Approval taking the 2017 Mile (G1) two years after the great Tepin stamped her own championship season with a victory in the eight-furlong test. Having already put herself alongside her predecessors in terms of her determined development, Got Stormy will try and give the Casse Racing team yet another triumph in the turf showcase when she heads to post in the $2 million FanDuel Breeders’ Cup Mile at Del Mar on Nov. 6.
That the daughter of Get Stormy is set to make her second appearance in the Mile and third Breeders’ Cup outing overall is itself something of an upset. A year ago, after finishing fifth in in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (G1) at Keeneland – beaten just two lengths for the victory by Glass Slippers (GB) – the chestnut mare went through the ring at the Fasig-Tipton November Sale and elicited a final bid of $2.75 million from Spendthrift Farm.
With a resume that already included multiple top-level triumphs, most notably her history-making turn in the 2019 Fourstardave Handicap (G1) when she became the first female runner to capture the prestigious Saratoga test, the expectation from Casse was that he had seen the last of his freckle-faced charge save for visiting her in Spendthrift’s broodmare band. Instead, he was informed by Spendthrift general manager Ned Toffey not to fill her stall just yet as they planned on bringing her back for a 6-year-old campaign in hopes of taking care of some unfinished business.
It was a sporting risk not many owners would’ve taken given that level of investment, and one that was ultimately questioned by several pundits after Got Stormy dropped two of her first three starts this season including a pair of fifth-place finishes in the Churchill Distaff Turf Mile (G2) and Jaipur Stakes (G1). A common narrative was that her best step, that one that nearly earned her the hardware in the 2019 Mile when she held a short lead in the stretch before being passed by eventual champion Uni (GB), had been dulled with age.
It was a fair enough critique given her early efforts – that is until her red-headed self shoved crow down the throat of many in August when she captured the Fourstardave Handicap for the second time, besting a field that included fellow Mile entrants Raging Bull (FR), Blowout (GB), and Casa Creed.
“I’ve said all along, she’s as a happy and looks as well and trains as well as she ever has,” Casse said. “It wasn’t completely shocking that she ran so well (in the Fourstardave). If you looked at her form going in, it was really no different (than in past years). I think the only reason she got beat in 2020 was it poured the morning of the Fourstardave and she needs (the ground) hard and fast. It wasn’t hard and fast, but she still ran her butt off and finished second.
“I will say her win in the Fourstardave this year was one of our most satisfying victories because so many people had written her off.”
Casse doesn’t count Got Stormy among the trainees that have most tested his all-timer skillset – the brilliant but quirky champion Classic Empire still holds that honor – but he does relish how far she has come from her early days as a filly unsure of herself who needed a couple of seasons of development to figure out how to tap into her wicked turn of foot.
Originally trained by Lisa Lewis for owner Alan Quartucci, Got Stormy was sent to Casse after being purchased by Gary Barber following her second start. Though she broke her maiden in her first outing for her new connections in Feb. 2018 and would earn her first graded stakes win five starts later in that year’s Ontario Colleen Stakes (G3), she ended her sophomore season with a pair of off-the-board efforts in New York stakes.
As maturity set in, Got Stormy’s full ability was able to bubble to the surface. After starting her 2019 season with an allowance win, she admirably stepped into Grade 1 company for the first time when she finished third in the Jenny Wiley Stakes (G1) at Keeneland behind eventual champion Rushing Fall and followed that run up with a second-place effort in that year’s Churchill Distaff Turf Mile.
“She’s changed a lot,” Casse said. “When we got her as a young horse, she was a maiden and she’d only run a couple of times but she was very nervous, very fidgety. As she’s gotten older now, she comes off the truck or the plane or the van and says ‘What do you got for me today?’
“It’s funny, she has like a quiet reserve about everything now,” added Kim Carroll, wife of assistant trainer David Carroll and frequent exercise rider of Got Stormy. “With her being mature and all that now, she’s just so full of class and on her game. Body wise, she’s bigger. She feels better. And when she’s out training, she’s loving every minute of it.”
Anytime Casse has a good turf distaffer on his hands, he starts fielding inquiries on how said runner compares to two-time champion Tepin. It’s not really a fair line of questioning given the ridiculous standard the daughter of Bernstein set, but Got Stormy did her part to legitimize said talk when she won her first Fourstardave Handicap in course-record setting fashion a week after takin the 2019 De La Rose Stakes, then added a victory the Matriarch Stakes (G1) a month after her runner-up finish in the Breeders’ Cup Mile.
She doesn’t string together big winning streaks and can be particular about the ground she likes depending on the distance she is traveling. At a mile, she wants to feel her feet rattle. When she sprints, a little give in the ground is more to her liking.
One thing that remains constant, however, is the tell Got Stormy gives off when she is about to drop one of her massive runs. It’s something Casse doesn’t always know when he’s going to see, but it’s something he recognizes the instant it shows up.
“She has this look where she stares into space and she’s just focused,” Casse said. “If you ever watch some of the great athletes like Tiger Woods, it’s like when they’re in the zone and they’re looking somewhere and it’s like the surroundings aren’t even there. She was like that in the Fourstardave this year. It was like deja vu, I’ve been there. But I didn’t see that same thing from her down at Kentucky Downs (when sixth in the Grade 3 Turf Sprint Stakes in September).
“You never know when it’s going to show up and I can’t tell you until we’re there. But when she comes with her game face on…”
When Got Stormy does get wood on the ball, she can run the bases with the best of them. She’ll get the firm ground she needs when she heads to the gate this Saturday out of post No. 11 and the tighter configuration of the Del Mar oval plays to her strength of sling shooting herself off the turns.
“She’s just an absolute iron horse,” Toffey said. “Mark has always seen the right things out of her after every start. Has she lost a step? I don’t know, maybe. But if you ask the connections of the horses who ran against her in the Fourstardave this year, they might disagree with that.”
Unless Casse can give Spendthrift and co-owner My Racehorse Stable the hard sell on going for a third Fourstardave triumph in 2022, he really will have to bid farewell to the good-feeling mare after what will be her 32nd career start. He has proudly watched Got Stormy grow into a Wonder Woman and no matter what her final performance yields, he will count this season as an absolute gift.
“It was all worth it just (coming back) for the Fourstardave,” Casse said. “I’ve been lucky to have her run as long as she has. No regrets, no disappointment. She’s ready and we’re going to give it her best shot.”