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'The horse deserved it': War of Will's Preakness win is Derby redemption

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War of Will trainer: 'It's just unbelievable' (1:11)

Mark Casse reflects on War of Will's victory in the Preakness Stakes, saying it's extra special given the previous controversy at the Kentucky Derby. (1:11)

BALTIMORE -- For Mother's Day, War of Will trainer Mark Casse and his wife, Tina, were shopping in Orlando, Florida -- hardly a die-hard horse racing community, by his standards -- when an employee in a shoe store asked Casse where he got his sneakers.

As soon as Casse said Louisville, Kentucky, the employee started opining about the controversial finish of the Kentucky Derby that disqualified winner Maximum Security, who veered directly into the path of War of Will, contributing to Casse's seventh-place finish.

"Well," Casse told him, "we were kinda there."

"What I found interesting was how many people know about it," Casse said this week.

Now everyone also knows War of Will can win -- something Casse realized last summer in Saratoga but wasn't able to prove until Saturday's victory in the 144th Preakness Stakes in a time of 1:54.34 that was the fastest Preakness winning time since Curlin in 2007.

Once again, War of Will started from the No. 1 post. This time, though, the horse was unfazed when the bizarre occurred, as jockey John Velazquez was thrown off Bodexpress coming out of the gate and his horse just kept running.

So did War of Will and his jockey, Tyler Gaffalione.

Casse, who was corralled in the infield grass with a horde of spectators just before the start of the race, was nowhere near the rail or paddock and was forced to watch the finish unfold on the big screen.

"Come on, Tyler!" he yelled, his voice cracking. "RUN, TYLER! COME ON, WILL!"

Gaffalione and War of Will followed Warrior's Charge the whole way around and made their move around the final turn, and the crowd of 131,256 roared. The 58-year-old Casse and his wife were smothered by embraces at the finish. It was the fifth time they had entered a horse in the Preakness but the first time they won.

"We were just focused on getting the horse to the winner's circle," Gaffalione said. "That's the main thing. And his safety, of course, but it wasn't anything to do with redemption or trying to prove something. It was just the horse deserved it. He's a very talented horse, and we're just very thankful he was able to prove that today."

Casse won't call it revenge.

"I just wanted a fair shot," he said. "That's all I wanted. You know, we were coming back in two weeks, and there were a lot of fresh shooters. So I was extremely proud. ... A lot of people said, 'Oh, is this revenge?' No. I just wanted to win."

Casse knew he had a horse who could do it, going so far as to say earlier this week that he was coming in expecting to win, but after a ninth-place finish at the Louisiana Derby and then the unusual circumstances at the Kentucky Derby, War of Will's potential was just that: potential.

Last summer in Saratoga, Casse said, everybody would come by the barn to see his other horse, Wonder Gadot.

"I would say, 'Do you want to see a really, really good horse?'" Casse said. "And I brought him out, and I would show him. That's when we started calling him 'WOW.' ... And Derby week, he breezed, and everybody was like, 'Wow,' and I'm like, 'Now you know what I've been seeing.'"

They didn't get to see it, though, when it mattered most, as Maximum Security veered into War of Will's path as they came around the final turn at the Kentucky Derby.

"I've never experienced anything like it," Casse said. "Obviously, we felt directly after the Derby we were extremely disappointed because we felt like we didn't get a fair shot to show how good he is, but then we were also grateful at the same time he came out of the race in one piece. It could've been disastrous for horse racing had he clipped heels and fell."

Casse said his mom called him the following week in tears asking him if he was OK. "I said, 'Mom, I'm great, don't worry about me. I can handle this.'"

War of Will, like his trainer, was relaxed -- even more than usual on Saturday, according to Gaffalione.

"That was the key," he said. "Mark said, 'Just jog him today, let him walk, try and keep him as calm as possible,' and it worked out."

The 13-horse field was the largest at the Preakness since 2011, but this year, the focus heading into the race was more about who was missing. Neither Country House, the winner of the Kentucky Derby by disqualification, nor Maximum Security, the disqualified Derby winner, ran on Saturday. It was the first time since 1996, when Grindstone was retired because of injury, that the middle jewel of the Triple Crown didn't feature the winner from the first leg.

It went even deeper than that, though.

In addition to Maximum Security and Country House, Code of Honor (second place) and Tacitus (third place) also skipped the Preakness, marking the first time since 1951 that the first four finishers in the Kentucky Derby all bypassed the Preakness.

"We just won the Preakness," Casse said. "I really don't care who was in it."

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War of Will's jockey: 'This is a dream come true'

Tyler Gaffalione, the jockey of 2019 Preakness Stakes winner War of Will, says the horse "relaxed beautifully" and the victory is surreal.

It was a victory not just for Casse, but for the entire sport, which has been riddled with drama recently. With more than $4 million in renovations needed at Pimlico Race Course, it's possible this Preakness Stakes was the last at the dilapidated racetrack, where the Preakness has been held since 1873. Almost 7,000 seats were closed for safety reasons on Saturday, and after multiple plumbing issues both earlier in the week and on race day, the lines for the restrooms were longer than the betting lines or those for the traditional Black-Eyed Susan cocktail.

"Who's ready for a drink?" one vendor yelled.

Just about everyone commiserating in line appeared to be.

In spite of no Derby winner, it was still a typical Preakness scene at the track, where worlds of poverty and wealth collide for one day every year in Northwest Baltimore's Park Heights neighborhood. There were women wearing heels and flamboyant hats, and men in bowties, suits and fedoras, and a long parade of dark SUVs with VIP signs in the windows -- money, nicotine and alcohol flowing freely all day long, smack in the middle of one of the city's more depressed, low-income neighborhoods.

The warm weather and sunshine was a welcome change to the sloppy track and deep fog that blanketed it a year ago. The infield party roared on, pausing only for selfies and refills, with bass booming so loud it made parts of the press box rattle.

Casse will be back in the barn at 6 a.m. Sunday. He said he wouldn't be able to sleep. He and his wife had reservations for somewhere after the Preakness, he said, "but we won't be making those."

They might make the Belmont.

"We'll see how he acts, and if all goes well, we'll probably send him up maybe 10 days before Belmont," Casse said. "But that's a big question."

The bigger question, though, remains: What if?

"With the exception of our horse was a little too eager in the Derby, we had a great trip until, I call it, 'the incident,'" Casse said. "You know, I would like to think if it wasn't for the incident, it would have been an interesting race down the lane."

Should War of Will win the Belmont in three weeks, "the incident" will arguably remain the sport's biggest storyline this year -- inseparable from its domino effect on the Triple Crown and the one horse that might have won it.