Trainer Mark Casse (right) celebrates with owner Gary Barber (left) and jockey John Velazquez (center) after winning the 2018 Queen’s Plate at Woodbine Racetrack with Wonder Gadot. Michael Burns Photo.

Woodbine Getting Back on Track Hits Home For Hall of Famer Casse

By Alicia Hughes

For an Indiana native who makes his year-round home in Florida, trainer Mark Casse is as synonymous with Woodbine Racetrack and as any horseman or executive who counts the Toronto-based venue as their base. 

Ask the Hall of Famer how many Sovereign Awards he has won as Canada’s Outstanding trainer and he has to pause for a second to make sure he has the number right (13). At the conclusion of Woodbine’s abbreviated 2020 meet in November, Casse had topped the trainer standings for the 12th time and while he was voted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame at Saratoga last year, he’s been enshrined among the best of the Great White North since 2016. 

By most definitions, Woodbine is as much home to Casse Racing as his sprawling training center in Ocala. So as Canada’s premier racing venue spent nearly seven months on hiatus due government restrictions brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, the 60-year-old conditioner wasn’t the least bit detached from the professional and personal angst that had Ontario’s Thoroughbred community hanging by a thread.

“It’s been tough. It’s very been tough. Luckily, we’ve been able to keep the people working and everything,” Casse said. “I have to be honest, it’s been costly but, as costly as it’s been for us, I can’t even begin to imagine how bad it’s been for all the Canadian horse people that have been without any source of income for seven months. It’s been brutal. Financially, it’s been challenging but I’m not feeling sorry for myself, that’s for sure. I feel bad for the Canadian horse people.”

The light at the end of the tunnel that seemed awfully dim only weeks ago is finally arriving with a flash for Woodbine this weekend. With Ontario entering Step One of its ‘Roadmap to Reopen’ plan earlier than originally expected, Woodbine Entertainment announced on June 7 that the 2021 Thoroughbred Meet at its signature track will finally open on June 12 with racing conducted without spectators. 

The start of Woodbine’s 2021 Thoroughbred season, originally scheduled for April 17, was delayed as the province of Ontario faced stay-at-home orders that extended into May in an attempt to battle rising COVID-19 cases in the area. Similar restrictions forced the track to cut its 2020 meet short by nearly a month last November and, while they were able to operate without a single COVID positive on its backstretch during that six-month stretch last year, according to Woodbine CEO Jim Lawson, live racing was still among the outdoor activities not given the green light to resume until recently.

Keeping the community safe during a global pandemic was priority No. 1, but frustration became palpable as executives worked to convince the health department that live racing presented no greater risk than keeping the track open for stabling and training. With a barn full of Canadian-born employees, not to mention several Ontario breds, Casse was among those who kept the faith and – most important – kept his equine population intact as Woodbine worked to get back to business. 

“It had everything to do with the health department but…it’s very difficult to let one group of people get to work and others not, and so that was difficult,” Casse said. “I thought it was quite ludicrous that nobody could do anything, but we could play hockey (NHL). But what are you going to do?”

“We never shipped anybody out of there,” he continued. “It wasn’t easy for a lot of our owners and we own a fair amount of horses ourself, my wife does. But we sat there and it’s like when you go to a restaurant and they say there is a 30-minute wait. Are you going to drive 20 minutes where there is a 10-minute wait? You just have to grin and bear it and take it. And a lot of our horse population is Canadian breds so there is a reason they’re there. To just pick up and move would not have made a lot of sense.”

Despite the very real fear of losing horsemen for good due to the delay, Woodbine has seen exceptional support come through for its opening weekend. It’s 11-race lineup on Saturday had 123 horses pass the entry box – including also-eligibles – while Sunday’s 13-race card features 152 total entries. 

Mighty Heart leads the field into the first turn of The Queen’s Plate at Woodbine on Sept. 12, 2020. Michael Burns Photo.

Not surprisingly, the Casse barn is slated to have a strong presence this weekend with seven runners set to go to post at Woodbine on Saturday and six more on Sunday. With the $1 million Queen’s Plate – the first leg of the Canadian Triple Crown – now set for Aug. 22, the noted trainer is hoping some of his more promising runners have enough time to play catch up in preparation for the classics. 

“The problem is, I have a couple horses that haven’t run that we had high hopes on and now we’re sitting here in June and we haven’t started,” Casse said. “You know, there is no playbook for this 2021. I just play it day by day. But I think Jim Lawson and the Woodbine team have done a tremendous job along with Sue Leslie who is the head of the HBPA. They worked day and night. We’re lucky to have both of them or we may not be running yet.”

After this weekend – with post time for Saturday and Sunday slated for 1:20 p.m. ET – Woodbine’s racing schedule will add Fridays (4:50 p.m. post time) and Thursdays (1:20 p.m. post time) as it expands to its normal schedule in the coming weeks.

“Normal” has itself become a relative term over the past year as all facets of life work to regain its pre-COVID footing. For Woodbine and those who support the picturesque track, having race days on the schedule again is both a financial savior and an emotional lifeline. 

“My wife knows that every time the condition book would come out at Woodbine, I’d be in my office working for hours on end,” Casse said. “We got an email the other day and she said ‘Another condition book! See you tomorrow’.”