Sometimes you can win and lose a race at the same time. Horse players have long known this: Many “Dutch” their races, betting two horses to win. Horse trainers, too, as Mark Casse demonstrated as a 10-horse field turned for home in the 151st running of the Belmont Stakes on Saturday.
Many had never heard of the Indiana-born, Canada-famous Casse. But he had emerged as a key figure in this topsy-turvy Triple Crown season.
Five weeks ago, his colt War of Will nearly went to his knees in the Kentucky Derby. He got tangled with the apparent victor, Maximum Security, who had jumped a puddle, veered right and subsequently was disqualified for interfering with his rivals, giving the win to Country House.
Casse, 58, knows what he is doing. He has had horses in plenty of big races and is a member of Canada’s racing Hall of Fame and a multiple Sovereign Award winner for outstanding trainer in that country.
Two weeks after the Derby controversy, horse enthusiasts and casual fans got to know Casse a whole lot better when War of Will burst up the rail in the Preakness Stakes to give Casse and his young rider, Tyler Gaffalione, their first victories in a Triple Crown race.
And as the horses turned for home on Saturday in this grueling mile-and-a-half marathon nicknamed the Test of the Champion, War of Will was rolling and looked as if he was going to become the first horse to fail to win the Derby but complete a Preakness-Belmont double since Afleet Alex in 2005.
As those in the crowd of 56,217 at Belmont Park who were clutching betting tickets on War of Will rose to their tiptoes, Casse knew better. He did what Dutch bettors do: He switched horses.
“I went to riding Sir Winston,” Casse said, an embarrassed smile creasing the corners of his mouth.
Big-time trainers often have more than one horse in the biggest races. Casse is reaching that level and he had a second horse in the Belmont, a colt by the name of Sir Winston who had not won since December in Canada and had arrived here last month.
Sir Winston took to this grand old racetrack famed for its big, sweeping turns and a surface that is known as Big Sandy because its footing is more Jersey Shore than Kentucky topsoil.
“I said all week he was doing well,” Casse said, that grin growing bigger.
In May at Belmont, Sir Winston had erased a 10-length deficit and rumbled home with a rush to finish second in the Peter Pan Stakes. As the horses rounded the far turn on Saturday, Casse knew War of Will, the only horse to compete in all three legs of the Triple Crown, was done.
“I could see where War of Will was struggling a little,” he said. “He looked like maybe he was a little flat.”
But behind War of Will, the jockey Joel Rosario had Sir Winston cruising around the turn as if the colt were tethered to a slingshot.
“I saw Joel cut the corner a little bit,” Casse said.
Now Casse’s eyes were locked on Sir Winston. The wrong horse was now his right horse. Rosario knew it, too. He had tucked the son of Awesome Again on the rail and said he was genuinely surprised the colt was comfortable.
“He didn’t mind the inside,” Rosario said.
So Rosario vowed to take his time. Ahead of them, the 21-1 long shot Joevia was winging the field through a half mile of 48.79 seconds. He ripped a mile in 1:38.27, and Rosario and Sir Winston were in hot pursuit.
“He was a little closer,” than Rosario wanted him.
When Joevia led the field into the stretch, his trainer, Gregory Sacco, felt his temples pounding: Could his colt really win?
“I think my blood pressure went through the roof,” he said.
Behind him was Tacitus, the striking gray colt that went off as the nearly 2-1 favorite. But he was too wide and too far back.
“We did have a bit of a wide trip, which you never like,” said the trainer of Tacitus, the Hall of Famer Bill Mott, who also trains Country House.
Rosario, meanwhile, wrangled Sir Winston to the middle of the track and then back inside, passing Joevia at the top of the stretch and holding off Tacitus for an emphatic victory by a length in 2:28.30 Joevia was third, less than another length behind, and War of Will finished ninth.
Not only did Casse have his second straight Triple Crown victory, Sir Winston’s owner, Tracy Farmer, took home a $900,000 first-place check and bettors were rewarded with a $22.40 payoff on a $2 wager.
The victory by Sir Winston ended a strange Triple Crown season, kicking off with the confusing, disputed disqualification of Maximum Security, which led to the horse’s owners filing a federal lawsuit seeking to restore their colt’s Derby victory. And at the Preakness, a horse crossed the finish line after shedding the jockey out of the gate.
Then there are the dead horses — 27 of them since December at Santa Anita Park in California, which have prompted an investigation by the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office and calls from elected officials and animal-rights activists for the track to be shut down.
Now Sir Winston joins Maximum Security, who is recovering at Monmouth Park on the Jersey Shore; Country House, who is recovering from an infection; and War of Will as the top 3-year-olds in the nation. Some or all could face one another over the summer in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth or Jim Dandy and Travers Stakes at Saratoga.
No matter the distractions, Casse has established himself as a horseman to be reckoned with on this side of the Canadian border as well.
It’s a small fraternity of top-flight trainers who can win with the wrong horse.