Luck is something horsemen pray for, dream about, wink at, covet.
At age 72, standardbred trainer Bill Cass has finally found it. For the first time in his life, he’s qualified a horse for the $1-million North America Cup at Mohawk Raceway. In the early days, Cass was known as a stalwart at folksy little Orangeville Raceway, a track that doesn’t even exist anymore.
At the draw for post positions on Tuesday at Mohawk, Cass was the first horsemen in the room, his tweed cap perched on his head, his smile ever ready. This was something he wouldn’t miss. He likes to spin tales. He’s a story teller by heart, and this one he could spin for a long time into the future.
The horse that brought him here is Luck Be Withyou. They call him “Lucky” around the barn.
With the fortunes of the racing industry plummeting by government dictates, Cass could see the advantage of calling it a career a couple of years ago. He promised his wife of 53 years, Priscilla, that he’d step away from all those early mornings and dusty ovals and late nights. After all, they had already taken to spending four months of the winter in Arizona, to escape the Canadian winters. (Who wouldn’t?)
But long-time owner John Craig, a corporate lawyer from Toronto – with Cass for almost four decades – wanted something special for the trainer. He told Cass to get himself to the Lexington, Ky., yearling sale in October of 2012, and buy a nice colt. They weren’t going to get out of the business on a down note, Craig said. He wanted one more “kick at the can.” Cass could buy anything he wanted. Not to worry: Craig would take care of the cheque. What horsemen doesn’t dream of such luck?
“We used to buy five for $100,000,” said Cass, who has trained some decent horses over the years, one of them (Samfrancisco Irv), a claimer-turned-freeforaller, actually winning $440,000 in his career. “Now you really have to buy one for $100,000.” Irv raced 186 times to win that money.
Luckily – and this is the theme of this thing – Cass spotted a colt that was a three-quarter brother to a world champion, and he plunked himself down in his bidding spot and started to raise his hand. He got the horse for $77,000. He expected he’d have to go for $125,000 to $150,000 to get him. Afterwards, folk would ask him: “How did you manage that?” There had been a lull in the sale, when others went off looking for better. Cass won: he was the one who paid attention.
Last year, Luck Be Withyou won the Breeders’ Crown at Pocono Downs in Pennsylvania for Cass and Craig. That’s as good as it gets in this business. It signifies you are a champ. Luck Be Withyou is the second leading money winner in the North America Cup, outpaced only by JK Endofanera, an American colt from the powerful Ron Burke stable, from whence comes Foiled Again, a pacer that has won $6.8-million in his career.
Cass has a seven-horse stable, and doesn’t want to have much more than eight. He’s trying to make it all count with better stock. And for the first time in his life, he’s been really lucky.
He’s still trying to pick himself off the floor, pinching himself that he’s at the brink of ultimate success near the end of a long career, he says. Luck Be Withyou has as good a shot as any in the field, he thinks. “An undertaker couldn’t take the smile off my face,” he said. He’s ably assisted by Howard Aas, a Norwegian who would rather call himself Howard Cass. He’s pretty much been adopted by the family, anyway.
“This harness business has been good to me,” Cass said, and he’s not complaining about the falling fortunes of the sport over the past couple of years. He hasn’t had an easy life. One of his sons, Jimmy, was killed in a motorcycle accident when he was only 14. Nine years later, Cass lost his other son, Joey, a budding harness driver, in a car accident.
Four years ago, he said, he underwent triple bypass surgery, with three arteries blocked 90 per cent and the other 80 per cent. He had no idea he was ill. He didn’t feel dizzy or weak. Doctors discovered the problem during a checkup and whizzed him into surgery immediately. He’s always upbeat.
But there has been harness racing and every day that he goes to the barn, he’s met with something different. Horses are like people, he says. They have moods. There will be problems to solve. And on Saturday night, he’ll be racing for $500,000 in one race against the best pacers in the world. And that’s something.