In With the Old, In With the New
Marylou Whitney has seen just about everything there is to see in the world of Thoroughbred racing. Norm Casse has seen plenty too as the right-hand man to his father Mark, but what he hadn’t seen until late Saturday night was a stakes win under his own name. A sophomore filly named Hard Legacy (Hard Spun), carrying the iconic eton blue and brown colors of Whitney, changed that when scoring in front-running style in the GIII Regret S. under the lit-up Twin Spires at Churchill Downs.
“It’s probably relief more than anything else,” Casse said Tuesday of how his milestone victory felt. “I put a lot of pressure on myself and our team and set certain expectations, and that was one of them. So we’re just happy and relieved to get that one out of the way.”
As far as names go in racing, they don’t get more legendary than Whitney’s, and it was a striking unity of generations far removed for the 36-year-old Casse to earn his first black-type success for the 93-year-old Queen of Saratoga.
“I really can’t put into words what it means. When I think about that I won a stake, I don’t even think about that, I think about the fact that we won a stake for Marylou Whitney,” Casse said. “It’s really not sinking in.”
Growing up the son and grandson of Thoroughbred trainers, it seemed inevitable that Casse would become a horseman himself, but he recalled that it was Whitney’s most famous victory of the 21st century that officially angled him onto that path.
“I joke about it all the time, but it’s really not a joke, it’s true, the reason that I started training or wanted to become a horse trainer was when Birdstone beat Smarty Jones in the Belmont,” he said. “Smarty Jones was always my favorite horse and that was just devastating that day. I find it poetic that now I’m training for the outfit that beat him. It’s an incredible honor just to be associated with her. She’s the epitome of class.”
While Casse’s connections through his work as Head Assistant Trainer for his father’s barn indirectly helped him, it was at the direction of Whitney’s husband, John Hendrickson, that he got involved with her outfit.
“John Hendrickson likes giving new guys a chance, and he reached out to [Live Oak Plantation principal] Charlotte Weber, who I had a relationship with through dad with him training for her all these years,” Casse said. “Charlotte gave John the blessing that she thought I would be the right fit for them, and that’s how it all shook out.”
Given Casse’s formative memory of Birdstone, it’s fitting then that Hard Legacy is out of the Whitney-bred mare Stone Legacy, a Grade I-placed daughter of the diminutive Classic winner. Scoring by seven lengths first out on the Keeneland turf last October, she repeated in a Gulfstream optional claimer Dec. 23, but was off the board in two stakes tries before breaking through in the Regret, her first nine-furlong attempt.
“Both of her stakes starts she had a lot of trouble, and I like to use every race as a learning experience, win lose or draw,” Casse said. “We feel like we learned some stuff about her, we figured that the stretch-out would be much to her benefit because then she can get loose on the lead and really relax as opposed to chasing like she does going the mile distance. She’s just a talented horse and I feel like the more and more we run her, the better she’s going to get.”
The stakes win was the culmination of 16 months of solo work for Casse, who had more eyes on him than perhaps any other trainer who’s gone out on his own after working as an assistant since Chad Brown emerged from Bobby Frankel’s shadow in 2007.
“I feel really good, I feel like we’ve done everything we were supposed to do,” he said when asked to assess his stable’s performance so far. “I think that the expectations are high, both from myself and from the outside. I feel like we’ve done everything we can do to this point, and we’ve just got to keep building on that, but so far, so good.”
Building a legacy, after all, is hard.