Crystal Falls---The Casagranda name is synonymous with harness racing. It is a family business which has been passed down from generation to generation.
In 1915, Guy Casagranda bought a farm south of Amasa and began training horses. After his death, his son Bruce took over the family business. He and his wife, Sue, along with sons Bill, Joe, and JD, train some of the best horses in the racing field. Bruce also shoes horses in the local area.
Uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews also race, so often spectators can see Casagranda against Casagranda.
Up until a few years ago, Sue did the majority of the training, while Bruce took the horses to the races and got all of the credit, she said with a laugh.
Now both Bruce and Sue race at fairs, and both are sure bets to win. Sue had her first win last summer in Norway. At the same fair, Bruce won by 15 lengths. In Gaylord, racing against some of the best horses in the nation, he broke the track record, winning by eight lengths.
"I don't drive to win," said Bruce. "I drive to do the best I can. You have to say a lot of prayers, but also have faith in yourself."
Sue drives more aggressively because, "I haven't had any accidents yet so haven't learned patience and common sense," she said.
There are still a lot more men driving than women, but the field is opening up. "There are still a lot of men who feel women shouldn't be on the track. They purposely pull tricks. But it makes you tougher and more determined," she said.
Bruce drives HeiHei, a five-year-old gelding. He belongs to Sue, a gift from Jack McCracken of Marquette. "The horse represents the U.P. in harness racing. He was bred, born, raised, and trained a Yooper," Sue said. "He is fast becoming one of the premier racers in the state.
Sue drives Two Steps Fast Lady, owned by Nancy Keating of Gladstone.
The Casagrandas currently own one Horse (HeiHei), are boarding two others, and are training four horses for owners in Michigan and Minnesota. One of the horses being trained is an American Bashkir Curly named Beaut.
In Harness training, the Casagrandas first handle the horse on a lead or lunge line. The horse runs in a circle at the end of a long lead line. It learns to run in both directions. After the horse is accustomed to the act, a harness is placed on its back and a bit and bridle are added to steer. It is next introduced to the cart and pulls it behind a little at a time. "The horse builds its confidence to go further without any weight on the cart<" Bruce explained. Gradually, a person sits on the cart. The horse learns to turn the cart in a short radius, back up, and stand still. "We teach them good habits so they don't have to be broken later," Sue noted.
The horses are handled every day for at least an hour. After two months of patience, kindness, rewards, and handling, the horse is ready.
Each horse is an individual, Sue noted, and they cannot all be treated the same. "Each horse has its own personality and quirks, just like kids. We want that horse to be happy and to like what he is doing for us," she added.
The Casagrandas admit they do not make much money training horses. You could go broke doing it, Bruce said, but it is fun.
"It is something to get up for every day. Without the horses, I wouldn't want to be here. Their happiness makes you happy. They love you for being good to them," he explained. "We go one day at a time, doing what we have to do to raise a family. We are not in it for the money. We do it because we enjoy it."
"The kids and I learned to come second to the horses. We do it out of choice. The boys learned to wait for things, so they appreciate it more," Sue said. "It has also taught them to stay away from drugs, because they have seen what drugs have done to horses."
And when racing, Bruce said, "You can't think of the money. You can't think of the danger. When I race, I turn it over to God."
It is a simple philosophy. It is the Casagrandas' philosophy for training, for racing, and for life.