By: Chris O’Leary for Woodbine.com
TORONTO, November 5, 2020 – Mark Casse and his wife had just arrived in Lexington, Kentucky on Tuesday when they got the good news they needed. They’d both tested negative for Covid-19 and would be able to take part in the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf presented by Coolmore America at Keeneland.
That allows them to see if Gretzky the Great can continue to win like his namesake.
A name that boomed over the speakers at Woodbine this summer, Gretzky the Great was bred by Anderson Farms in St. Thomas, Ont. Anderson was impressed with the colt and Aron Wellman of Eclipse Thoroughbred paired with L.A. film producer Gary Barber to buy the horse. They handed him off to Casse, the trainer.
“I can remember when we first started training him in Ocala,” Casse said.
“When he started breezing I told Gary Barber and Aron Wellman both, I said, ‘I think this horse is pretty good.’ He’s just done everything right, right from the beginning. I was surprised when he got beat his first time. I didn’t think he’d get beat, but of course he got beat by a good horse that had a race over him.”
He lost that first race to Ready to Repeat on July 12 at Woodbine, placing second. He shook off the early loss to mount three wins in a row, on Aug. 2, then taking the Soaring Free Stakes on Aug. 23 and the Grade-1 Summer Stakes — a Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series race — on Sept. 20.
“Since then, he keeps winning,” Casse said. “He’s a beautiful-moving horse…and he’s an extremely smart horse.”
While the horse was trained in Canada, the hockey-inspired name actually came from Barber, whose work in the film industry spans the last three decades and coincides with Wayne Gretzky’s time as an L.A. King.
“I think Gary Barber named him. Gary is a huge, huge sports fan,” Casse said, pointing out that Gretzky the Great’s sire is Nyquist, who is named after Detroit Red Wings forward Gustav Nyquist. His owner, J. Paul Reddam is a big Wings and (obviously) a Nyquist fan. So hockey, or at least hockey fandom, is in the family’s blood.
“Nyquist is just turning out to be a phenomenal sire. This is his first crop,” Casse said.
Like Wayne Gretzky, Gretzky the Great is following a similar path in his field: Ontario-bred, success in Canada early in his career and now getting into the spotlight of his sport in the U.S. Of course, just four races into his young career, Gretzky the Great’s future is in front of him and even with the promise he’s shown to this point, nothing is guaranteed.
“It’s tough to know,” Casse said.
“He’s going where he was a star in a regional area. Now he’s going to compete against the world and you just never know how you fit in until you try. We’ve been fortunate, we’ve won the Breeders’ Cup five times.
“Even at that point, with some of your horses you never know. It’s truly hard to gauge. You go in with as much confidence as you can, but knowing that you never know until it’s over.”
That’s also part of the fun for Casse, who started down a path that his wife has heard him take by his estimation a million times in their years together.
“Training horses is like putting a puzzle together,” he said. “You’re always trying different pieces and seeing what works. So far with him, the puzzle pieces have gone in very nicely.”
He looks at Gretzky the Great and wonders just how great he could be. He could see the Canadian-bred horse competing for the Queen’s Plate, or maybe even at the Kentucky Derby. For now, it’s step-by-step, race-by-race.
On Friday, Gretzky the Great will have some challenges. Casse said he could have gotten a better post, noting how hard it is to win from the 11-hole. He’ll also be going from a one-turn mile at Woodbine to a two-turn mile in Lexington.
There are old stories about a young Wayne Gretzky playing above his head when he was young, a scrawny boy playing against kids a few years older than him. He scored his 1,000th minor hockey goal when he was 13; he scored 378 goals in his final season of peewee.
On Friday, a two-year-old horse that’s named after hockey’s greatest player will try to make its mark against stiff competition. This is his opportunity.
“I’m hoping that one day he’s good enough that maybe Wayne comes to see him,” Casse said. A lot has to happen first but if Gretzky the Great stays in the winner’s circle enough, he might get his full circle moment.