By Chris O’Leary/Woodbine
Canada: Mark Casse and his wife had just arrived in Lexington on Tuesday when they got the good news: both had tested negative for Covid-19 and would be able to attend the Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland to see if Gretzky The Great can continue to win like his namesake, ice hockey legend Wayne Gretzky.
A name that boomed over the speakers at Woodbine this summer, Gretzky The Great, who runs in the Juvenile Turf, was bred by Anderson Farms in St. Thomas, Ontario.
Anderson was impressed with the colt and Aron Wellman of Eclipse Thoroughbred paired with LA movie 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 recalls.
“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.”
Gretzky The Great lost that first race to Ready To Repeat on July 12 at Woodbine, placing second – but he shook off the early loss to mount three wins in a row, most recently in the G1 Summer Stakes on September 20.
‘He’s an extremely smart horse’
“Since then, he keeps winning,” Casse says. “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 LA King.
“I think Gary Barber named him – he is a huge, huge sports fan,” Casse says, 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 fan. So hockey, or at least hockey fandom, is in the family’s blood. “Nyquist is just turning out to be a phenomenal sire,” says Casse.
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 US.
“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,” admits Casse. “But 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.”
‘With him, the puzzle pieces have gone in very nicely’
That’s also part of the fun for Casse. “Training horses is like putting a puzzle together,” he says. “You’re always trying different pieces and seeing what works. So far with him, the puzzle pieces have gone in very nicely.”
Casse 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, though, Gretzky the Great will have some challenges. Casse notes how hard it is to win from the 11-hole at Keeneland; 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. “I’m hoping that one day he’s good enough that maybe Wayne comes to see him,” Casse says.