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.
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"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.