ELMONT – Sir Winston Churchill was one to preach that in life you should never give up.
Mark Casse, the affable trainer who has always embodied that mantra, was rewarded Saturday evening with his second straight classic victory in the 151st running of the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes.
Sir Winston, a 3-year-old chestnut son of Awesome Again, took advantage of a masterful ride from Joel Rosario to give the 58-year-old trainer the first Belmont of his career.
Casse, a trainer that has had tremendous success in Canada, now has put two big checkmarks on his resume that should solidify his chances to be elected into the U.S. Hall of Fame.
Already enshrined in the Canadian Racing Hall of Fame, he attacks every race like it is his last and is never afraid to run his horses often or against anyone. He’s fallen short on the last two ballots, but his 2019 Triple Crown season was one where he showed tremendous character in being right in the middle of the Kentucky Derby controversy and returning to win both the Preakness and Belmont.
The big surprise on this gorgeous Saturday afternoon at Belmont Park was that it was not his Preakness winner War of Will, who crossed the wire first, but his other entry in the race, owner Tracy Farmer’s Sir Winston.
Trainer Bill Mott, whose post time favorite Tacitus finished second, joked in the tunnel after the race. “I thought Mark Casse had a big shot, but I didn’t know that it was this one, said Mott referring to Sir Winston. “I guess that’s what keeps the game interesting. He won two legs of the Triple Crown and won it fair and square.”
Casse wasn't ready to give up on Sir Winston after some early disappointing efforts. "I can remember having a conversation with Mr. Farmer up at Saratoga, and he didn't run very well. I said, "Don't give up on him. It's crazy, but I see something. Let's just give him some time to develop," said Casse.
Tipping out beautifully from the rail after passing the quarter pole, he first moved in front of stablemate War of Will. Sir Winston then ducked past Tax and took over the lead from Joevia to a sustained roar from the 56,217 in attendance.
All that was left to do was to hold off Tacitus, the 2-1 favorite who was roaring down the outside straining to get to the leader. Rosario drove Sir Winston home with one last burst to hold off Tacitus by a length to complete the mile-and-a-quarter trek in 2:28.30.
Sir Winston returned to his backers $22.40 for the win, $8.80 to place and $6.10 to show. Tacitus paid $3.90 to place and $3.20 to show. 22-1 longshot Joevia paid $8.70 for third. The $1 exacta returned $48.
It was Rosario’s second Belmont riding win, claiming victory in 2014 aboard Tonalist, who upset California Chrome’s Triple Crown bid. His ride on this afternoon was as glorious as the weather, riding patiently on the rail until the exact moment he needed to maneuver around the leaders.
Like Tonalist, Sir Winston used the Peter Pan to prep for the Belmont, where there had been only two winners, including A.P. Indy, that came out of that race to win the Belmont since 1992.
There were a lot of clues in his pedigree that he would get the distance. His mother’s sire is Afleet Alex, who won the 2005 Belmont Stakes by seven lengths. Casse foretold his horse’s stamina on a lazy Friday morning at Barn 30 on the Belmont backstretch two days before the big race. “The only horse I truly think that will go a mile-and-a-half without an issue is Sir Winston,” Casse predicted.
When posed by The News if he would be surprised with if Sir Winston was wearing the coronations at Big Sandy late Saturday afternoon. “I would not be surprised one iota,” Casse said as he leaned against a barn door, his signature smile rising from his lips.
Sir Winston was on the Derby trail, but didn’t earn enough points for entry and it likely was a godsend for Casse. “I told Mr. Farmer, long before that if we could get this horse to the Derby, he would run extremely well in the Derby,” said Casse. “Now as the Derby turned out, it wouldn’t have worked because of the wet track and everything.”
His first clue that Sir Winston had the goods came from one of his first call riders. “Julian Leparoux has ridden for me for years and he doesn’t get too excited about anything,” said Casse. “When he rode Sir Winston in the Tampa Bay Derby, he said when he finally got into gear he was flying. Then we went to Keeneland and the track was so speed biased, that he had no chance.”
For trainer Bill Mott, who was also attempting to win his second classic of the Triple Crown season to add to Country House’s Derby win, it wasn’t meant to be for Tacitus. Trip trouble caused him to lose ground and rider Jose Ortiz couldn’t get the son of Tapit to catch the winner.
“We had the 10 hole that I thought that would actually be to our advantage at some point,” said Mott. “I thought that the fact that he may get a clear trip could be to his advantage as a big, long striding horse. I was hoping for a nice, cruising type on the backside. You don’t want to lose ground or have to stop with a big horse like that.”
Ortiz made no excuses after the race, citing the other Casse horse was the main impediment to his trip.
“I followed War of Will. If he doesn’t flatten out I would have won the race, because he being flat he allowed the horses from the inside to come out,” said Ortiz.
“I think if he [War of Will] gave Tyler [Gaffalione] a run passing the quarter pole, it would’ve been different, but he didn’t so I was forced to go out there to make a run. I was wider than I wanted to be,” said Ortiz.
Joevia, who set the early fractions and led all of the way until Sir Winston overtook him, proved he belonged after struggling to a seventh-place finish in the Wood Memorial. "That was quite a thrill,’ said trainer Greg Sacco. “He's a really talented colt. We knew the Wood wasn't any indication of his ability. He's a 3-year-old improving at the right time of the year.”
For the second time in the last three years, the Triple Crown series gave us three different winners and chaos heading into the summer season of racing with no clear cut favorite in the 3-year-old male division.
Locally, we head into the Canadian Triple Crown season, a series in which Casse has thrived in recent years, sweeping all three of last year’s races with two different horses. He’s won four Prince of Wales Stakes at Fort Erie and has a strong string again this year heading into the Plate.
One thing’s for sure, if the American Triple Crown was any indication, Mark Casse will have a say in it.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.