Even before COVID-19 prompted numerous racing delays or cancellations, the horse racing world was living in uncertain times. Last week's federal indictments of more than two dozen people accused of doping racehorses had already thrown the sport into turmoil.
But for by-the-book trainers like Mark Casse, last Monday wasn't a black eye for the business – it was a sign of hope.
“I didn't know if I wanted to continue to be a horse trainer,” Casse said on a national media call Tuesday. “I seriously thought about retiring because it's just so frustrating. It's frustrating when you work and you work and you work, and you know you're getting beat not by a better horse, a better trainer, a better track.
“I told one of my biggest owners, he called me a few days ago and said, 'How are my horses?' and I told him they're going to get faster and faster each day that goes by since Monday. He said, 'What do you mean?' And I said, there's a lot of them that are going to get slower. That makes ours faster. So, I'm excited. There's still work to be done but I look at what just happened as a beginning, not an end.”
Casse hinted that he wasn't surprised by the names on last week's indictment, which included Jason Servis and Jorge Navarro.
“I'm just kind of tired of the cheating,” he said. “That was a big step the other day. They took out some bad guys. There's more to come, I hope. I think maybe if it looks too good to be true, it usually is. Let's not just rely on testing but let's look at common sense.”
For Casse, an eleven-time Sovereign Award winner who has been training since 1979, the indictments serve as a reminder about what's not working well in racing regulation. Casse was asked about his feelings on the Horseracing Integrity Act, which would turn over drug testing to an independent, non-governmental authority. He said he would welcome the opportunity to race under the same set of drug rules across states but that better testing isn't the only answer to racing's integrity woes.
“They didn't find Lance Armstrong by testing. They didn't find steroid users in baseball by testing. They found it by investigations, by people talking,” said Casse. “I promise you if the trainer is doing something, the assistant trainer probably knows about it, grooms know about it, the veterinarian probably knows.
“We have a pretty good idea who's cheating.”
Major red flags Casse looks for: giant swings in a horse's speed figures. Some fluctuation between races is normal, but horses rarely improve by leaps and bounds in one start without help. Anyone could see those changes, but Casse pointed out that a horse's ownership is responsible for asking questions when things seem too good to be true.
“Racing managers need to look at something and ask if something's fishy,” he said. “And owners – check your vet bills. To cheat costs a lot of money. I think that what happens is, in life you have to figure out what's more important: winning at all costs, or your integrity. I think sometimes owners, trainers, racing managers, bloodstock agents worry only about winning.”
Casse is gearing up for a big weekend, with one runner in the Cicada at Aqueduct and two in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby – Enforceable and Lynn's Map. He said he's not too worried about adjusting his contenders' training and racing schedules to accommodate the rescheduled Kentucky Derby, which will now be held Labor Day weekend.
“There's things that are much more important right now than horse racing,” said Casse, referring to COVID-19. “So we're going to have a Kentucky Derby in September. That's ok. That's fine. It would have been terrible if we didn't have any Kentucky Derby.”
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