For Mark Casse, it’s been a very long wait.
But in this instance, it will be well worth it.
It was about 15 months ago in May that Casse and the rest of the 2020 inductees learned that they had been voted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
In a normal year, they would have been honored during an August induction ceremony at the Fasig-Tipton sales pavilion, but very little about 2020 was normal. With the COVID-19 pandemic shutting the doors of the museum until Labor Day weekend and health protocols forbidding large gatherings, the ceremonies were postponed.
A year later, the museum is open to the public, fans are once again flocking en masse to Saratoga Race Course, and Casse and six other 2020 inductees will finally get their long-delayed moment in the spotlight.
Once again the pavilion will be packed with the sport’s most famous individuals on the eve of the Whitney Stakes as the class of 2020 will join three 2021 inductees Aug. 6 in a ceremony featuring as much star power as the event has ever produced.
“In numerous ways, it’s better late than never,” Casse said. “I don’t know if the ceremony would have been the same without people, so I’m glad they waited. It was better to wait the year so you could have family and friends there to share it with you.”
Casse, who has trained the winners of 3,122 races, will represent the class of 2020, along with two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan, Historic Review Committee selections jockey Darrel McHargue, 19th century champion Tom Bowling, and Pillars of the Turf choices Alice Headley Chandler, J. Keene Daingerfield Jr., and George D. Widener Jr.
The 2021 honor roll features American Pharoah, who in 2015 became the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, Todd Pletcher, who holds the record for all-time earnings by a trainer, and Jack Fisher, a 13-time champion steeplechase trainer.
“You have two years combined into one so it’s an exciting time for a lot of people,” said Pletcher, who was elected in his first year of eligibility. “Some great horsemen and horses will be honored and I’m honored to be associated with them.”
American Pharoah was also elected in his first appearance on the ballot, which, like Pletcher’s selection, generated no surprise.
It was Zayat Stables’ homebred son of Pioneerof the Nile who became the 12th Triple Crown champion after an exasperating 37-year wait. Aside from electrifying the sport with his sweep of the 2015 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, the Xpressbet.com Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes Presented by DraftKings, he closed out his career later that year by becoming the only horse to collect a Grand Slam by also capturing the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Now a successful stallion at Ashford Stud in Kentucky, American Pharoah won nine of 11 starts and earned $8,650,300 for owner Ahmed Zayat and Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert.
“When you think of first-ballot Hall of Famers, you think of the names like Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, Wayne Gretzky, Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana,” Baffert said. “Now American Pharoah is being inducted as a first-ballot Hall of Famer. In the history of our game he is right up there with Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Man o’ War, Citation, Count Fleet, and Affirmed. It was the greatest privilege and honor of my career to train him.”
Though American Pharoah only raced once at Saratoga, he left behind some images destined to carry into the next century. He was upset by Keen Ice in the Travers Stakes, but what happened the day before the race, when about 15,000 people turned out at Saratoga on a Friday morning just to watch the Triple Crown winner gallop around the track, was an incredible sight the sport may never witness again.
Pletcher was also a first-ballot choice, befitting of his dazzling achievements in his 25 years of work as a trainer. The son of trainer and horseman J.J. Pletcher, Todd is a seven-time recipient of the Eclipse Award as the outstanding trainer and has amassed a record $409,890,881 in earnings.
A winner of the Kentucky Derby twice and the Belmont Stakes three times, his glittering résumé also includes 5,155 wins (seventh-best all-time), 11 Breeders’ Cup, and 60 training titles.
“Todd has worked for 25 years at an incredibly high level,” said owner Mike Repole, who has built a long and successful relationship with Pletcher that includes champions and Grade 1 winners such as Uncle Mo, Vino Rosso, Stopchargingmaria, and Stay Thirsty. “His worst year is the best year for 99% of the trainers. I actually don’t think he gets enough credit. Some trainers specialize with young horses or turf horses, but Todd produces great horses at every level. He does it better than anyone else. He’s a role model to everyone in the sport. He’s a great person and at a time when the sport has been taking some tough shots the last few years, Todd represents this sport so well at the highest levels, and I’m not just talking about him as a trainer. I’m talking about him as a great human being.”
Pletcher first dreamed of becoming a trainer when he was a child.
“Training horses is all I ever wanted to do,” he said. “I remember being 11 or 12 and telling my mom [Jerrie] I wanted to train and she said it was wonderful. From that point on, with her endorsement, I never thought about doing anything else.”
Pletcher’s big break came in 1989 when he was hired by Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas and worked with numerous champions before starting his own stable in 1996.
Kiaran McLaughlin worked with Pletcher during those formative days at the Lukas barn and he ran the New York operation when Lukas was out of town. One day, when McLaughlin’s wife, Letty, delivered their first child in the early morning hours, McLaughlin called the barn’s young foreman to tell him that he would have to step up and run the operation that day. The foreman was as nervous over the phone as the father-to-be that morning, but he handled everything smoothly.
Who was that foreman? Todd Pletcher.
“Todd’s work ethic, his passion, and organization is amazing,” said McLaughlin, a trainer for more than 25 years before becoming the agent for jockey Luis Saez last year. “He was going to be successful no matter who he worked for or who he worked with. His father was a great horseman and Todd puts in an amazing amount of hours. Our families are close and it’s great to see him voted into the Hall of Fame. No one deserves it more. He’s a classy gentleman. No one says a bad word about him and aside from all his great wins, he has created so many stallions. No one has created as many stallions as Todd.”
For the family-oriented Pletcher, being able to share the moment with his wife, Tracy, their children, Payton, Kyle, and Hannah, and parents only adds to the magic of it.
“I’m really humbled to enter the Hall of Fame. The emotions grow as the day approaches and your family starts to come in, but you try to take it in stride and enjoy it. You get a lot of well-wishes here at the track which you appreciate,” Pletcher said.
The setting of the Hall of Fame also carries a special meaning for the four-time Longines Kentucky Oaks winner, who has been the leading trainer at the Spa a mind-boggling 14 times.
“My first year here at Saratoga in 1989, when I was working for Wayne, I recognized how much Saratoga racing means to this area and horse racing in general. In American racing, it is elite,” the 54-year-old Pletcher said. “It’s a special place and obviously doing well here has been important to my success. Being able to win the training title here in my third year was significant and that kind of recognition really moves you forward.”
In his career he has amassed more than 700 graded stakes wins and more than 165 Grade 1 wins. Aside from Repole’s horses, Pletcher is best known for training Hall of Famer Ashado, English Channel, More Than Ready, Princess of Sylmar, Scat Daddy, and classic winners Rags to Riches, Always Dreaming, Super Saver, Palace Malice, and Tapwrit.
Racing has also been a family affair for the 60-year-old Casse. He was introduced to the sport by his late father, respected Florida horseman Norman Casse, and fell in love with it. He still has fond memories of his childhood days with his father at Saratoga, living out of a recreational vehicle parked on the Fasig-Tipton grounds where he will be inducted Friday, attending the races at the Spa, and even walking to downtown each night with his dad to get an advance copy of the Daily Racing Form.
“Racing has been my entire life and for horse racing this is the greatest achievement. To get in the Hall of Fame it’s not what you do in one day or a few days, but what you do in your lifetime,” Casse said. “I remember the first time my dad took me to the Hall of Fame I told him I was going to be in there someday, so this is very special for me.”
Given Casse’s bond with his father, who passed away in in 2016 at the age of 79, and a racing family that includes his son, Norm, who was an assistant to Mark and is now a trainer, his speech promises to be filled with words coming directly from the heart.
“I’m trying to be careful to write my speech in a way I can get through it emotionally,” he said. “If I tell a few stories early on I’m not sure if I’ll get through it.”
Reflective of those feelings was the night Casse was watching the television show “Master Chef” with his wife, Tina. When a contestant was eliminated, she looked over and saw tears in her husband’s eyes.
Surprised, she told him, “I didn’t think you liked her enough to cry about her.”
The Hall of Fame trainer smiled and explained the tears.
“No, I’m writing my acceptance speech and I was writing about my dad,” he said.
Norm Casse, who trains Schuylerville Stakes winner Pretty Birdie for Marylou Whitney Stables, was an assistant to his dad in the training of the champions Tepin, Classic Empire, Shamrock Rose, and World Approval. More than most people, he fully understands how much the sport and family mean to his dad.
“We’re all very proud of dad. I know he’s been waiting for this for a long time. I’m proud that he’s my father and to be a part of his success,” he said. “It’s going to be a surreal day. He’s a very emotional guy, so I know how difficult the speech will be for him. He always wanted to make grandpa proud and this is the highest achievement there is. I’m sure grandpa is very proud of him.”
Casse, who was voted in the Canadian racing’s Hall of Fame in 2016 and is a 12-time Sovereign Award winner as the country’s top trainer, has registered earnings of more than $190 million. He won two legs of the 2019 Triple Crown with War of Will (Preakness) and Sir Winston (Belmont) and is one of the few American trainers to win a stakes at the Royal Ascot meet.
The charismatic Wise Dan, owned by the late Morton Fink, was Horse of the Year as well as the champion older male and champion turf male in 2012 and 2013 for trainer Charlie LoPresti. The gelded son of Wiseman’s Ferry won the Breeders’ Cup Mile in both of those years, beating top international competition, and racked up 11 Grade 1 wins among 19 graded stakes victories.
“I’m proud of what he accomplished. For me, with a small stable of never more than 30 horses, to have a horse like Wise Dan is pretty phenomenal,” LoPresti said. “He took his game everywhere he went. He was so versatile. He could win on dirt, synthetic, turf, short, and long. He speaks for himself.”
Like Wise Dan, LoPresti is retired and sees his star every day, caring for him and his older half-brother, Successful Dan, at his Forest Lane Farm outside of Lexington.
Fisher, the only steeplechase trainer to surpass $1 million in earnings during a single year, has been the leader in jump wins 13 times. He trained two-time Eclipse Award winner and Hall of Famer Good Night Shirt, one of just three $1 million earners in steeplechase racing, and 18 other winners of a National Steeplechase Association division championship.
“I’ve always loved being around horses,” Fisher said. “It’s been my life. I’m pretty darn lucky.”
McHargue, now a California steward, won 2,553 races and earned $39,609,526 from 1972 through 1988. He was the Eclipse Award winner in 1978 when he set a record with $6.1 million in purse money.
Winner of a career-best 405 races in 1974, McHargue rode a long list of champions including Hall of Famer John Henry, Master Derby, Ancient Title, My Juliet, General Assembly, Run Dusty Run, and Vigors.
Tom Bowling was foaled in 1870 and won 14 of 17 starts after losing his first two races. He was considered the champion 2-year-old male of 1872 and Horse of the Year and top 3-year-old male the following year. He won the Travers Stakes, Jersey Derby, Flash Stakes, and Monmouth Cup.
It will be another emotionally charged moment when Chandler is inducted as a Pillar of the Turf. Sadly, Chandler passed away in April at the age of 95 before she could be inducted. She was one of the breeding industry’s most respected figures as the founder of Mill Ridge Farm in Lexington in 1962 and one of the sport’s most prominent female leaders.
She bred 1968 Epsom Derby winner Sir Ivor, who became one of the sport’s most influential sires. Recipient of the 2009 Eclipse Award of Merit, she also served as chairperson of the University of Kentucky’s Gluck Equine Research Foundation, president of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, and a director of the Breeders’ Cup, Keeneland Association, and the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association.
Daingerfield, who passed away in 1993, was one of the sport’s best-known stewards who received the Eclipse Award of Merit in 1985 and was elected to The Jockey Club in 1989.
Widener was a highly successful owner and breeder. He bred 102 stakes winners before passing away in 1971 and his list of champions includes Jaipur, Jamestown, High Fleet, Evening Out, and What a Treat, as well as Hall of Famer Eight Thirty.
He was chairman of The Jockey Club for 14 years, chaired the Greater New York Association, which preceded the current New York Racing Association, and was president of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame and a director of The Thoroughbred Club of America. The Widener turf course at Belmont Park is named after his family.
Friday’s ceremony starts at 10:30 a.m. ET and is open to the public. It can be viewed online at www.racingmuseum.org.