It wasn’t yet 6 a.m. when Mark Casse accepted a warm congratulatory handshake from six-time Preakness Stakes winner D. Wayne Lukas.
For most of his life, Casse had dreamed of the Triple Crown races that Lukas won with such regularity. Now, he was part of the club.
War of Will, the gifted colt who’d bounced back from an unimaginably messy Kentucky Derby, put him there by winning the 144th Preakness.
“It’s the Preakness,” Casse said Sunday morning, clutching a cup of steaming coffee as he let that thought sink in. “And now we can say we won it.”
He didn’t sleep much Saturday night after a quiet dinner with his wife at Wicked Sisters in Hampden. So he began responding to more than 400 congratulatory messages that overwhelmed his cell phone. He was down to about 200 as he chatted with reporters at Pimlico Race Course. The moon still hung in the sky while War of Will posed for photographs in the background.
Rival trainers praised Casse and War of Will as worthy winners.
“It was nice to see someone else get a chance to win the race,” said Bob Baffert’s chief assistant, Jimmy Barnes. “Mark works hard. They have a big outfit, and they’re out there every morning working very hard in their barn.”
“I’m a fan of that horse,” said trainer Brad Cox, whose horses Owendale and Warrior’s Charge finished third and fourth, respectively. “He’s a very versatile horse, and obviously, they’ve liked him for a long time. He’s very talented, and he shows up to run every time for those guys.”
Casse had spent two weeks bouncing from emotion to emotion — relief that his horse was unharmed after nearly colliding with Maximum Security in the Derby, irritation at those who blamed War of Will’s jockey, Tyler Gaffalione, for the disqualification in that race and finally, hope that he’d get a clean shot in the Preakness.
One of the congratulatory texts Casse received was from Gary West, the owner of Maximum Security who’s suing to overturn the Derby result. There had been tension between the camps, with West saying he’d wager $5 million on a rematch with any of the four horses Maximum Security allegedly impeded in the race. But Casse seemed in no mood to fight after his Preakness triumph.
He called West’s post-Preakness message “very nice.”
With his victory, War of Will finally brought some narrative cohesion to a Triple Crown series defined by chaos and danger. He was the horse most directly affected by the swerve that got Maximum Security disqualified at Churchill Downs. At the Preakness, his commanding run seemed in danger of being disrupted by the riderless Bodexpress. But he emerged from the tumult a worthy champion, pointed toward the Belmont Stakes as long as he holds up physically.
War of Will’s performance looked all the more impressive because the three other carryovers from that rugged Derby finished well back on Saturday. Post-time favorite Improbable got upset in the starting gate and never made a strong move in the race. Bodexpress bucked in the gate and dumped his rider, John Velazquez. Maryland-based Win Win Win ran wide and finished seventh.
But when Gaffalione asked War of Will for an inside move to pass early leader Warrior’s Charge, the bay colt seemed to have all the energy in the world. Even as the horses galloped out after the finish, War of Will did not want any rival to pass him.
The 58-year-old Casse is one of the most successful trainers in North America, but he’s also a pure racing romantic. He’s the middle link in a three-generation training odyssey that began with his father Norman and has continued with his son, Norm. He recalled mornings at his family’s farm in Ocala, Fla., when he’d await the Daily Racing Form like an eager puppy. He hated Sundays, when the publication did not come.
Unlike many of his peers, he wants to enter every Triple Crown race he can, because he still holds them up as special events.
Which brings us to the June 8 Belmont Stakes. The possibility of a Triple Crown went out the window when trainer Bill Mott opted not to enter his Derby winner, Country House, in the Preakness. But if War of Will could come back and defeat another fresh field in New York, he’d have a powerful claim to be the star of this 3-year-old class.
“I would say there’s an extremely good shot we’re going to be there,” Casse said.
War of Will is scheduled to board a van destined for Keeneland Race Course in Kentucky on Monday morning. He’ll recuperate for a few days and then resume training for the possible 1 ½-mile challenge ahead.
Casse was asked why he’d push his horse when there’s no Triple Crown on the line. Why not rest up for the summer schedule?
“Have you ever seen me do that?” he said. “There’s only three Triple Crown races. They’re pretty important. I think if you can do it, you should do it.”