Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: Oaks-Bound Norm Casse Credits Tepin For Helping Him Believe In Himself - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: Oaks-Bound Norm Casse Credits Tepin For Helping Him Believe In Himself

Norm Casse with multiple G1 winner Tepin after her win in the First Lady at Keeneland

Six years after stepping away from his dual Hall of Fame father's stable, trainer Norm Casse will have his first starter in an American classic race. Southlawn, winner of the Grade 2 Fair Grounds Oaks, will stamp the 39-year-old's name in the program for this year's Kentucky Oaks.

“This is a filly that we liked last year; we thought she was a Breeders' Cup type filly and it just didn't pan out, but she's good now,” Casse said. “I was with my dad in Ocala and I said, 'Wouldn't it be something if we had two of the favorites for the Kentucky Oaks?' He's got Wonder Wheel (champion juvenile filly), I've got Southlawn: we will sort it out on the track!”

That friendly rivalry notwithstanding, Southlawn represents another strong connection to Casse's time as his father's top assistant. The 3-year-old daughter of Pioneerof the Nile is owned by longtime Thoroughbred enthusiast Robert Masterson; Masterson also owned two-time Eclipse Award winner Tepin, the mare whose career gave the younger Casse the boost he needed to step out on his own.

Casse was with Tepin pretty much every step of the way, overseeing her day-to-day care and training throughout a career that saw the mare win Grade/Group 1 races around the world, from Royal Ascot's Queen Anne to the Woodbine Mile and the Breeders' Cup Mile.

“She was the horse that really kind of gave me the confidence that I knew what I was doing,” Casse said. “We knew she was special from day one, but it took us a little bit of time before we figured out what she wanted to be, and that was a turf miler. Managing a horse like that, taking on the world's best, and winning, it makes you start believing in yourself as well.

“I always had intentions of going out on my own, and maybe I would have rather done it earlier, but I would have failed. Once Tepin's career was over, it was time to move on because we weren't going to do anything more impressive than that.”

Masterson's support in the earliest days of his training career means the world to Casse.

“He was the only guy at the beginning that sent me horses,” Casse explained. “He had a few years of bad luck, we just didn't do well and they weren't what we thought they were. I appreciate the fact that Robert stuck with me. He's been around the game for a long time, and he never lost confidence in me. It's very very special to have this horse in this race for him.”

Looking ahead to walking around Churchill Downs' clubhouse turn on Kentucky Oaks day, alongside a horse with a real chance, Casse reflected that it wasn't necessarily the career path he saw for himself as a child. 

Though his father was heavily involved in racing, as well as his grandfather, Casse didn't start out enjoying the sport.

“I grew up resenting horse racing a little bit,” he told Blood-Horse in 2021. “My dad and my mother divorced when my brother and I were very young, and I didn't get to see dad a lot. When I did go to see dad during the summers, we'd have to go to the races and be in the barn all day. Being a little kid, there was a lot of resentment there.”

Casse focused on sports, specifically, baseball. He even played a year at the college level, but in 2004, a New York-bred named Smarty Jones took on the world in Casse's hometown of Louisville, Ky.

“Everything changed for me when Smarty Jones won the Kentucky Derby,” he recalled. “From that day forward I decided I wanted to be a horse trainer on my own one day. It was not because I was forced into it with my family, it's because I had that passion. I had been to every Kentucky Derby since 1996, I don't know what it was about Smarty Jones, maybe it was his story or his undefeated record and I also love his trainer. The energy at Churchill that day – I don't know how to describe it, but it transformed me, I know that.”

It took a few years for Casse to own up to that dream with his father, but his father embraced it readily and set to work. Casse said he really began to develop as an assistant and trainer from about 2013 to 2016. When Tepin retired, Casse knew it was time.

It still took time to develop his own program, however, shifting away from being seen as his father's assistant to a very good trainer in his own right.

“I think everything worked out the way it should,” Casse said. “At first people were just giving me project horses, horses the bigger barns didn't think much of, so it wasn't easy. But I needed those lean years when I started to become a better trainer. When I was working for dad, he was feeding me his best horses. That meant that I didn't work with lesser-caliber horses. Now I'm on my own and that's who I ended up with. I became a better trainer by working with them.”

Casse earned his first career win with Tiznoble on May 10, 2018, at Churchill Downs. He picked up his first graded stakes win on June 15, 2019, when Hard Legacy captured the G3 Regret Stakes at Churchill Downs.

Six years into his solo career, Casse has trained four individual graded stakes winners and a total of 138 winners, and his statistics are continuing to trend in the right direction. During the first three months of this year, Casse has saddled the winners of 16 races, already approaching nearly double his number of winners from 2022.

One of his biggest success stories has been the filly Super Quick. It took the Whitney homebred six starts to break her maiden, but she would go on to win a Grade 3 stakes for Casse's team.

“Up to this point she's been one of my best horses,” he said. “Again, she was naturally gifted in the morning, but we ran her a few times and she disappointed us sprinting. It turns out she really likes a route. I really feel like, in my dad's barn, we wouldn't have given her the same opportunities or found the same success.” 

“I feel very confident in what we do and in my team,” Casse continued. “Now I can tell just from going down the barn and looking at the horses that we have, there's a difference in quality. Southlawn is near the top, of course; I always have known what to do with a horse like her!”

Like Tepin, Southlawn was sourced by bloodstock agent Deuce Greathouse. The dual champion mare was bought for $140,000 at the 2012 Fasig-Tipton August Sale, while Southlawn commanded a final bid of $290,000 at the 2021 Keeneland September Sale.

Southlawn won at second asking, then finished a disappointing seventh in the G2 Pocahontas at Churchill Downs. That effort led Casse to try the filly on the grass.

Despite continuing to train well, Southlawn's two turf starts resulted in a ninth and fifth-place finish.

“We always thought she was good,” Casse said. “I don't believe in morning glories. If a horse is showing you talent in the mornings, but it's not coming across in the afternoon, you just haven't figured them out yet.

“After her last start on the grass that was another disappointment, jockey Tyler Gaffalione said she was displacing badly. We already knew we were going to give her the winter off, so we got her to Fair Grounds immediately and had a myectomy performed.”

Dorsal displacement of the soft palate can severely inhibit a horse's ability to breathe properly, and thus their desire to run. A sternothyrohyoideus myectomy is a fairly non-invasive procedure which can be performed in the horse's stall while standing. It removes a portion of muscle behind the jaw bone, and carries about a 65 percent success rate of resolving displacement, according to Texas A&M.

“She's basically undefeated since then,” said Casse. “We have always thought that she was a serious racehorse, but something was holding her back, and we think that's what it was.”

When Southlawn began to appear ready for a race, however, the Fair Grounds wasn't carding very many races on the turf. 

“Sometimes you're more lucky than good,” Casse quipped. “Instead of waiting another month to run her, we decided she was ready to go and entered her on the dirt. It was obvious what to do from there.”

Southlawn won her first start after the throat procedure by eight lengths, and returned to win the G2 Fair Grounds Oaks in her next start by 3 ¼ lengths, defeating a pair of heavy favorites at 8-1 odds.

Now, the filly has returned to Churchill Downs with the rest of Casse's 30-strong string, and she's settling in to prepare for a tilt at the lilies. Though his father will likely have Eclipse Award winner Wonder Wheel targeting the same race, Casse is confident in Southlawn's chances.

“I think we have a very good shot of winning,” he stated boldly. “It's a wide open race, and though I know it doesn't look like it on her past performances, she loves Churchill Downs. I know the mile and an eighth will suit her just fine. She just gives me a lot of confidence.”

Southlawn, with Reylu Gutierrez in the irons, wins the G2 Fair Grounds Oaks
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