BALTIMORE – When Mark Casse was 12, his father, Norman, took him to see Secretariat win the 1973 Kentucky Derby. Nothing could have had a more profound effect on a kid from a racing family.
Five years later, Casse took out his trainer’s license in Massachusetts, and he’s led many meets in victories, including Churchill Downs, Turfway Park and Woodbine. He took the champion mare Tepin to Royal Ascot in England, where she triumphed in front of Queen Elizabeth. He’s won five Breeders’ Cup races, but a victory in the Triple Crown series had always eluded him. Until Saturday, when War of Will got a dream trip under Tyler Gaffalione and won the Preakness at Pimlico.
“It was so important to win it,” Casse said. “I just wanted him to get his chance to show everyone how good he is, because he is a super horse.”
Two weeks ago, as War of Will made a strong move into the stretch, Casse’s son, Norman, also a trainer, grabbed him and yelled, “Dad, you’re going to win the Kentucky Derby!” Seconds later, Maximum Security veered into War of Will’s path, and the colt and Gaffalione were lucky to stay upright. War of Will tired, finished eighth, and was placed seventh after Maximum Security was disqualified from first.
“My wife will tell you I don’t have a problem focusing,” Casse said. “But I had a problem focusing right after the Derby. It’s hard to believe, but I felt relief and joy that he was OK and that we didn’t have the worst disaster in racing history. I was good the next day. I was fine.”
Saturday’s victory was that much sweeter because two years ago, Classic Empire was on his way to winning the Preakness for Casse. He had a three-length lead at the eighth pole before Cloud Computing surged and nailed him in the final strides. The margin was a head.
“We thought we were going to win it, and we got beat at the wire,” Casse said. “So today I kept trying to figure out where the wire was. It was exciting, just unbelievable. I’ve been following racing since I was 5, and the Preakness has always been so big to me.”
Casse was thrilled to leave the group of elite trainers who never won a Triple Crown event.
“Well, my wife will tell you, whenever we have a bad day, I sleep,” he said. “And when I have a great day, I can’t sleep.”
Casse said he would meet the media at the stakes barn at 6 a.m. Sunday. Presumably, he will have raccoon eyes from being sleep-deprived, but it will be a very good tired.