People Person Extraordinaire

In 1959 Bill Cass left his home on Cape Breton Island and hitch-hiked to Toronto - but it wasn’t to work with horses. The 18-year-old was a mechanic, and he was coming to Ontario to make a life for himself. A jack-of-all-trades who succeeded in many different businesses before discovering Standardbreds at the age of 30, Cass did indeed find a life in Ontario; a life that’s been filled with more interesting experiences, and also with more grief than most. At the end of the day however, Billy has survived, and he continues to bring joy and laughter to those around him on a daily basis.  By Dan Fisher

Exactly 50 years ago (August 2, 1972) Bill Cass won his first Standardbred race as both a trainer and a driver, and like everything else the man has ever done there’s a great story that goes along with it. 50 years of racing though, that’s a long time - he must be a lifelong horseman, right? Not even close. Most horsepeople, regardless of how long they’ve been in the game, have dabbled in other things as well. Bill Cass has done more than just dabble though - he seems to have done it all, or at least come close. He led an entirely different life before the horse bug bit him at age 30, and it seems that he’s never been sold short along the way. The man originally from Cape Breton Island has touched the lives of a lot of people on his journey, and helped make most of those lives better; he’s also endured more grief than any one person should ever have to. Regardless of that though, he’s kept a brave face, and instead of wallowing in that hurt he’s brought a lot of laughter and joy to many. Mechanic, businessman, entrepreneur, restaurateur, horseman, ladies man, life of the party, and all-around good guy… 

They say that everybody has a story - 

Billy Cass has a thousand of them.

 

In 1959, at the age of 18, Bill Cass hitch-hiked from New Waterford, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia to Toronto, Ontario. 

In almost every other TROT feature that begins in a similar fashion, it’s a young Maritime horseman leaving home, looking to strike it rich racing horses in Quebec, Ontario or somewhere in the United States. That wasn’t the case with Cass.

“I was going to be a mechanic,” Cass shares. “I had done my apprenticeship and I was coming to Toronto to do more training and look for work. I remember an old guy down home telling me one day that I was a smart boy and that this was where the train turned for me. He said ‘whatever you do just get the F outta here.’ So I got the [email protected]#k out.

“I remember a nice fella picked me up in Montreal and drove all night to get me to Toronto by the next morning. He dropped me off right at what was called Maple Leaf Gardens, but it was actually where the Maple Leafs baseball team played then. I got out but I had nowhere to go. I saw a guy in a wheelchair with no legs, selling the morning edition of The Globe & Mail and for whatever reason I just sat there and watched him. I sat there all day, until he was done selling the evening edition,” recalls Cass. “Then even he left. 

“I didn’t even have a place to stay yet so I went walking through a nice neighbourhood nearby to look for one. I lived in a nice house back home so I thought that I may as well look for a nice place in Toronto. I came across a house that had a ‘Room For Rent’ sign in the window so I knocked on the door… a woman answered and when she saw me she closed the door right in my face. So I just sat down right there on her front steps… I didn’t know what else to do. Eventually her husband came out to see what I wanted. I struck a deal with him and I ended up living there for a year actually,” says the man who unknowingly had just made the first of what would become hundreds of relationships in his new home province of Ontario.

“The very next day I woke up and hopped on the streetcar. I was walking up Bay St. and started talking to a guy named Mickey Cohen, who was selling cars at Addison Cadillac. Long-story-short, after I told him what I was trained to do he took me inside and Harry Addison gave me a mechanic’s job right there,” he beams. 

“I didn’t stay there all that long though. My wife Priscilla had followed me to Toronto about four weeks after I got there. She wasn’t my wife yet at the time… we got married in 1960. But she got a job that was pretty much 9-5 and I was working from three to midnight… we only really saw each other on the weekends and I didn’t like that. 

“Anyway, I had met a guy by the name of Albert Barham, and he owned and ran a big gas and service station for British-America Oil right at 599 Yonge St. He liked me, and he told me that if I took their 6-week business training course he’d bring me in as a junior partner at 25%, and that I could pay him off over time. I jumped at it.

“It was quite a thing for a kid from Cape Breton. There was lots of excitement on Yonge St. in Toronto in those days… I was making good money there and living pretty high. There was even a place right next door to us at 601 Yonge where our customers could go while we worked on their cars and get entertained by the ladies so-to-speak,” he says with a sly wink and a gleam in his eye.

“We were running and servicing 27 Diamond taxi cabs out of there full time and making a lot of money doing it too,” Bill smiles. “Every time the population of Toronto grew by 10,000 the city would issue another cab license. In fact, three of the cabs we had there were being leased by Jim Beck… his first three cabs! Beck Taxi [with their signature green and orange cabs] ended up being one of the biggest taxi fleets in North America.

“I was at 599 Yonge St. for 10 great years,” Cass recalls. “I made a lot of money, met a lot of important people, and had a lot of fun.”

Before his arrival on the scene however, British American Oil had merged with Canadian Gulf Oil (in 1956). They had still operated under the British American name, but in 1969 British American amalgamated with its subsidiaries into a new company called Gulf Oil Canada Ltd., and not long after that the young businessman went a different direction as well. 

“I had basically been trained to be a Gulf man anyway, but in 1969 Gulf took over completely. Priscilla and I had two sons in the early ‘60s and we had bought a nice big house in Mississauga by then. I knew a real estate agent near our home and he told me about a service station that was for sale up at Airport Rd. and Highway 9. It was more than just a service station though, it was the station, a small grocery store, a convenience store and a house. It was the whole corner of that big intersection… I gave them $69,000 for the whole lot of it,” he beams. 

With no experience whatsoever, in terms of operating a grocery or convenience store, the Cass family left Toronto and Mississauga and headed north.

“It was an Esso Station that we bought and eventually one day the guy from Esso rolls in. He tells me that the owners had signed a 5-year lease with him and he starts going over all this stuff that I’d need to know. I told him that I was the owner now, that I hadn’t signed anything, and that I was a Gulf man. He wasn’t sure what to make of that,” Cass laughs. “I told him that Gulf had already offered to put in a new island with two new pumps, all new underground tanks, all new mercury lighting, and also give me $50,000 in cash. He matched it. 

“I had a $60,000 mortgage and paid off $50,000 of it right away. They put in all of the new equipment as we agreed and our business was off to a great start.

“Oh, and by the way… I had made it all up. Gulf hadn’t promised me a thing,” Cass chuckles, with that same familiar gleam in his eye.

“Those years in Mono Mills [the name of the small town at the corner of Airport Road and Highway 9] were the greatest,” Bill Cass says with a sadness in his eyes. “Our boys [Joey and Jimmy] were born in 1962 and ‘63… we moved there in ‘69 so that’s really where they grew up,” he reminisces. “If I’d get home from work and supper was ready, but Priscilla couldn’t find the boys, I’d just go for a short drive and wherever I’d see the two bikes laying around I knew they weren’t far. I’d call them and they’d come home for dinner… It was a nice little area for them to be kids. 

“I even started a baseball team there, to help all the kids out. They had a few teams in the area that all played each other, but they were all the guys in their 20s and 30s playing. There was no team for the teenagers so I started one. All the kids hung out at my station anyway because we put in a rec room downstairs with a bunch of pinball machines. None of them had a ball team to play for… their fathers were all playing instead and it wasn’t right. I sponsored them and bought them all new uniforms, and at first the older guys would beat us of course. Then I found a couple of ringers through my friend who was the manager of the big turkey farm down the road… a pitcher and catcher from Guelph. They were a bit older too, and as long as we’d buy them a case of beer they’d come and play for us… when we’d have them in the line-up nobody could touch us,” he laughs.

It seems that wherever the transplanted Islander landed he was pretty quick to make friends and have a positive effect on those around him. It was a trend that has followed Cass around to this day. 

In Mono Mills, business was booming. The area was growing fast with the development of the suburbs and it didn’t take long for offers to start coming in on the grocery store and gas station.

“After about three years in Mono Mills one fella offered me $250,000 for the business and we couldn’t turn it down. He gave us a $10,000 deposit but he never did close on the place, so that was some free money for us. Shortly after that though we sold to another group for $300,000, but then I bought a chicken restaurant about a mile down the road, and I bought a little ski hill near there too and ran that in the winter,” he laughs.

A mechanic at 18; businessman and husband at 19; father at 21; grocery store owner at 28; restaurant and ski hill entrepreneur at 30… How does one go from running a gas station and grocery store to owning a chicken restaurant and operating a ski hill?

“It was easy,” smiles Bill Cass. “That chicken restaurant [Parkview Chicken Queen] was a gold mine. I’d buy 300 chickens off of a guy every Friday morning and by Sunday afternoon I couldn’t have made you a chicken sandwich. We’d close it for the winter though, around October, because there wouldn’t be as many people traveling through that area then. That’s why I bought the ski hill,” he states. 

“The ski hill [Cedar Highlands] wasn’t hard to run at all because I knew how to fix all of the machinery myself. I could fix anything. I also learned pretty quickly that as soon as we got some snow, you had to get out on the hills and pack it down real good all night… as far as the T-bar and the old rope-tow, they never gave me any trouble. They were easy to fix. We had two good steep hills and one bunny hill for the kids. I knew John Bassett back then and I was the first one to put Carling Bassett [former world-class tennis player] on a set of skis,” he boasts.

It’s obvious by this point that the man was good at relationships and good at running all sorts of different businesses. Where did Standardbred race horses come into it though?

“I was actually selling some chicken to some guys with a truck and trailer [Jimmy Holmes and John Dolan] at the restaurant window one day. Something in their trailer was making a lot of noise and bouncing around so I asked them what they had in the back. They said it was a racehorse and when I asked where they were going they said they were shipping him for meat. I asked how much they’d get for that and they told me about $200… so I gave them $200 for him and we unloaded him right in the parking lot of the Chicken Queen. They drove off and I tied him to a post and called my friend Reg Lipsett from down the road. 

“His name was Arawana Adios and he was my first horse,” Billy smiles. “Reg had stalls at Orangeville Raceway and he picked him up for me and took him over there. The horse had two bowed tendons [he was 12-years-old at the time] and I started going to the track every morning to care for him. 

“Eventually he got close to racing again so I had to go to the CTA and get a license. Dow Clowater asked me whether I wanted to be a trainer or driver or both, and when I said ‘trainer’ he said ‘you might as well be both… you might want to drive one day.’ So we checked both boxes. I guess he told me that I had to get five qualifying drives before I could drive in a race but I don’t really remember,” he recalls.

“I qualified him myself at Orangeville and we won in 2:19, so I put him in to go at Owen Sound and I listed myself to drive. I think that the races were at 5pm and we got there really early. We’re sitting there and I got called up to see the judges. They told me that I couldn’t drive him because I needed four more qualifiers and I didn’t know what to do. But they were having qualifiers there at 3pm that day and I started talking to a few people. I went back to the judges 30 minutes later and told them that I had rustled up two drives in that day’s qualifiers, and asked them if that would do,” Cass laughs heartily. “They said that they’d watch me closely and to come back after. I must have done ok because they gave me my license and let me drive my horse.

“I just had a little set of yellow and brown colours that Priscilla had made me from some things she had around the house… it was pouring rain that day but we went out and won in 2:17. I’ll never forget it.

“When I got busier with the horses and we still had the restaurant, I’d sneak off to Orangville [Raceway] to drive a few in the afternoon. We had five girls working for us in the restaurant then and we were so busy. I’d sneak out and leave Priscilla and the girls working and when I’d get back a few hours later Priscilla would be furious at me,” he laughs. “She’d throw something at me and head back to the house, and I’d stick around and help close up. Eventually someone offered us a pretty penny for it though, and we sold.” 

It might have only started with old Arawana Adios, but Cass got bit hard by the racing bug. The other businesses may have occupied his attention for 12-15 years combined, but the horses have now been his passion for five decades. Once the restaurant and the ski hill were sold, the Bill Cass Stable didn’t take long to explode.

“We bought a farm in Amaranth [just north of Orangeville]. My boys both loved the horses too. It was a real family thing for me,” Cass tries to smile as his voice cracks and his eyes well-up a little.

Bill Cass is a man that brings so much joy and laughter to all of those around him. He’s been that way for years, but when one learns his entire story it becomes hard to imagine where he finds the strength to be that person.

“We loved both of our boys so much,” Cass shares. “They both worked for me and loved the horses. Joey even drove… he was a good driver.”

A parent should never outlive their child, but the world isn’t always fair, and Bill and Priscilla Cass had to bear the unimaginable fate of losing their child - not once, but twice.

“Jimmy was just 15,” Cass understandably struggles to share the story some 44 years later. “He was riding his dirt bike to the barn and got hit by a car. It was a Saturday evening [in 1978]… I was racing. We lost both of our beautiful boys on a Saturday… I was racing both times. Joey  was 26 when we lost him [in 1988]. He was playing baseball that day. He left a note for me on the board that he’d feed supper, but there was a car accident. I got the call at Mohawk and [Tom] Artandi drove me to the hospital.”  

Bill Cass has twice received the call that every parent dreads. “We got to the hospital and he didn’t make it. I had to go into that little room… I’ve had to go into that room twice,” Cass says sullenly as tears gently roll down the face of both interviewee and interviewer.

The inner strength of the gentle 80-year-old doesn’t take long to rear its head though as he regains his composure.

“I live on for my boys. I do what I do in their memory.”

* * * *

For the most part, Bill Cass found his calling in life when he discovered the world of Standardbred race horses. There would be no more switching full time professions.

“You can be successful in other businesses,” Cass shares, “but it doesn’t give you that same feeling… there’s nothing like it. 

“I’ve always had a thing for action and excitement. I’ve raced cars… every garage owner back then owned a race car,” he laughs. “I’ve raced at Cayuga and Flamboro Speedway… I’ve raced both hobby and super-modified. My nickname was always ‘Crash Cass’ - not because I crashed horses either,” he laughs.

“Hell, I’ve raced snowmobiles too. When I had the station in Mono Mills, Scorpion Snowmobiles signed me up as their licensed dealer in the area. I made a lot of money selling Scorpions. And I was racing them down the sideroads all the time too, and ended up racing one in the Kawartha Cup,” he laughs. “I’ve done it all… the stories I could tell.”

It was a different feeling for Cass with the horses though, and he tries to explain how… by telling a little story of course.

“I remember having a few of those ‘Mana’ horses for Murray Dudgeon and Einar Clausen. Mana Crown [by Speedy Crown] was an open-class trotter for me but Mana Horton was just a three-year-old Horton Hanover filly that smashed her elbows. She [Mana Horton] was sore from hitting them so we pulled her shoes and quit with her that fall, but two weeks later when I was training Mana Crown, Mana Horton trotted perfectly, and just as fast, beside us in the paddock one morning. She wasn’t hitting her elbows because she had no shoes on. It was November and there was one OSS event left at Mohawk so I pulled her out of the field and entered her… the owners thought I was nuts. My friend Dave Perkins {Toronto Star handicapper] laughed at me in the paddock before the race. I raced her without shoes and we went out and won… she paid $129,” Cass says with an unmistaken emotion in his voice. “You’ll never get that feeling from selling snowmobiles or chicken sandwiches,” he smiles..

“We grew pretty quickly in the ‘80s, and at one point we had 10 at Barrie [Raceway], 20 more at Orangeville and about 60 at the farm. Eventually, when we got racing more on the Jockey Club, I moved a bunch of them down near Mohawk to Paiement’s [currently Tomico T.C.] and I was driving from Amaranth to Campbellville everyday. It got to be too much, so one day when I was driving down #5 Sideroad and I saw this farm with a big kennel on it for sale, I went in and bought the place. That’s how we started the Dog’s Inn. That was our kennel that Priscilla ran for a bunch of years… we made a lot of money with that place too,” Cass smiles. 

Along with ‘Car and Snowmobile Racer’ you can add ‘Dog Kennel Operator’ to the Bill Cass list of professions.

“We’ve been lucky to have some really nice horses over the years, but just as important have been the friends and owners I’ve met along the way. John Craig, for one, has been both,” Cass says about the owner and friend he’s been closely associated with for the past 41 years.

“We had horses like Sam Francisco Irv [$444,946] and Careys Pride [$394,760]... Lucky [Luck Be Withyou p,1:47.4f; $1,463,996] was the best though. When he won the two-year-old Breeders Crown for us that was really special.

“I met John at The Royal Blue Sale because I was helping a friend of his from the mining industry [John Hamilton] sell all of his 50-or-so horses. He was getting out of the business and I was helping him get them sold. John [Craig] happened to come to the sale and brought his daughter Tracy with him, and John Hamilton convinced him to buy one of the fillies he was selling. John Craig’s daughter, Tracy, was pouting because she didn’t want to be at the sale so he bought the filly and re-named her Sulky Tracy,” Bill laughs.

“I didn’t know much about racing,” John Craig recalls. “I didn’t even have a trainer. John Hamilton suggested that I give the horse to a guy named Bill Cass, so I did. That was 41 years ago and we’ve been together ever since. Billy actually called me one day back then about Sulky Tracy,” Craig laughs, “and sheepishly told me that she had mistakenly gotten into foal at the farm. We weren’t even sure who the sire was - it could only have been one of two culprits though,” Craig chuckles, “and they were father and son… at least we knew the lineage. So that was the end of her racing career… we called her foal Tracys Surprise and she never raced either, but Sulky Tracy eventually had three others that did.”

With their partnership having started off in an inauspicious way to say the least, one might wonder how it’s lasted for so long.

“Bill Cass has given me so many laughs and great times over the years,” John Craig exclaims. “I couldn’t even begin to tell you how much fun we’ve had together. For years we’d go for lunch at the Mohawk Inn every Saturday after the horses were put away. We’d get a big table right in the middle of the restaurant and Billy would tell his stories… pretty soon everyone in the whole place would be gathered around our table. We did that for years… we’ve had so many laughs thanks to him.”

On the training side, Cass has definitely tasted his share of success, with horses like Luck Be Withyou, Ready To Rumble, Sam Francisco Irv and others, and although his 1,073 career driving wins is certainly nothing to sneeze at, he never really did consider himself to be a serious driver. That being said, one of his fondest memories in racing centers around not only him driving, but doing so in the role of a catch-driver as well.

“In 1990 Raz MacKenzie had a Jazz Cosmos colt called No Commotion. He had a lot of talent but they couldn’t keep him flat behind the gate. Raz said it was all in his head and he asked me to qualify him up in Orangeville one day. I scored him down a bit and he seemed perfect, so when I was walking him along the outside fence in the backstretch, waiting to go to the gate, I had a kid that was working for me throw a bunch of stonedust into his mouth. The colt was chewing at it and trying to spit it out while we went to the gate… it took his mind off of things and he stayed flat and won easily.

“They asked me to drive him again and I had wins with him at Mohawk and London. So then Raz tells me they’ve entered him in the Valley Victory eliminations at Garden State in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and they want me to go drive him. I said ‘No way’ [laughing]. Priscilla said that maybe we could go to Atlantic City and make a weekend out of it, so I agreed and her and I drove down.

“We get there, I walk into the paddock and see a program, and Bill O’Donnell is down to drive him… and I was 100% fine with that! I had never driven on a mile-track once in my life! Raz wasn’t happy though and he took me down to see the judges. He went in first and I could hear him yelling… I’m not entirely sure what he said but he got fined $100. Then they called me in, and after we talked a bit they put me back on the horse. I went out to sign the program and I had to sign right over O’Donnell’s name. He was there - I knew him and his dad… we’re from the same hometown - and he asked me who was driving the horse. I said that I guessed I was, but that I would have been so very happy if I wasn’t.

“Then there was a huge storm… they delayed the races for about an hour. Eventually we go out and it’s still raining pretty hard. I didn’t have a mud suit, I was soaked right through. We leave out of there and I get away 4th… [John] Campbell is on the favourite and he’s cutting it. We’re going down the backside and I mean we’re crawling… we’re going nothing. So I thought I’d just pull mine out and let him trot a little. I get up beside Campbell coming around the last turn and into the stretch, and I look up and I have absolutely no idea where the wire is [laughing]. I told ya, I had never even seen a mile-track before let alone drive on one. It was like I was looking down the 401 with no cars on it or something. So I realized that Campbell wasn’t driving his yet, and he drove on a mile [track] all the time. I decided to just wait until he started to drive his, and when he did, I asked mine… then I saw the lights. We actually won the race.” The emotion in Cass’ voice is still evident today as he recalls the surreal moment from his past. “We paid well over $100 to win [photo on Pg. 61]. Nobody could believe it. I went up after and we had dinner in the dining room. The owner of the horse was a mafia guy from Montreal and at the end of the night we all went down to Atlantic City with him in a big limo. The whole thing was incredible really,” Bill says, while reliving it all in his mind.

It’s an 80-year-life at this point, with what seems like 200 years of memories and tales. The memories aren’t all happy ones, no doubt, but whose are? Regardless, Bill always marches on.

What does today and the future now look like for Bill Cass?

“I still have one horse up at Argyle [a training centre just north of Woodbine Mohawk Park]. I have Doc Furness’ and Doc Powell’s old trailer parked around the side of the barn. We keep a fridge in there and a barber’s chair. A bunch of older horsemen and some owners come by every Wednesday and every Saturday around noon for a few glasses of wine and sometimes a haircut, he laughs. “My old friend Tony The Barber - I met him when he was a bettor at Orangeville 40 years ago - comes and serves the wine and will cut your hair if you want. For $20 you can get a glass of wine and a haircut,” laughs Billy. “You can’t beat that. I take a run to Niagara every so often and get 10 big boxes of white [wine] and 10 big boxes of red [wine]. A lot of the old guys come by and we have a lot of laughs.”

The bi-weekly gatherings at Argyle Training Centre certainly bring a lot of joy to a number of lifelong horsepeople who have a bit more time on their hands these days, and it’s no surprise that Billy Cass is the wheel that makes it all turn. He holds court in the middle of it all, just as John Craig, a man who often still attends the Saturday gatherings, stated that Cass did down the road at the Mohawk Inn for many years as well. When asked, almost every attendee credits Cass with being ‘the straw that stirs the drink’, and most admit that if not for Billy the gatherings would never ever happen.

Bill Cass lost two sons, 10 years apart. In 2018 he lost his wife Priscilla, after 58 years of marriage. To meet him however, one would never know the sorrow that the man has experienced. He’s literally the life of the party, and it seems that for the most part, his mission in life is to make those around him happy.

“If it doesn’t kill you it makes you stronger,” Cass states. 

“I’ve done some bad things… I know that I have. But I don’t think I’m going to hell when it’s all over. I think I’ve done too many good things for too many people for that to happen. I think I’m going to heaven. I might have to drink holy water every day between now and then to be sure though… I might even have to lick out the bowl,” he says, with that magical gleam in his eye.

 This feature originally appeared in the August issue of TROT Magazine. Subscribe to TROT today by clicking the banner below.