BALTIMORE – The music blared. The bass boomed endlessly all afternoon. Bottomless mugs were drained and refilled. Sun-burned revelers roared with delight as act after act took the infield stage.
Oh yeah, there was a Triple Crown horse race, too.
With the first four across the wire at this year’s Kentucky Derby taking a pass on Preakness day for the first time since 1951, the race was billed as wide open, and a case could be made for each of the 13 entries to win.
As the shadows cast from the paint-chipped Pimlico clubhouse stretched across the racing surface up to the special winner’s circle set aside only for 3-year-old racing royalty, it was anybody's race as the 1,000-pound thoroughbreds loaded into the gate.
Under a hazy Baltimore sky, the 144th running of the Preakness Stakes, the middle leg of thoroughbred racing’s trifecta of classic races, was won by War of Will, the Mark Casse-trained colt.
The winning connections celebrated the War Front colt’s victory and the blanket of Black-eyed Susans were draped over the winner’s shoulders after he held off late closing challengers Everfast and Owendale at the wire.
It was Casse’s first Classic win covering a career spanning 30 years and more than 16,000 races.
A 10-time winner of the Sovereign Award in Canada, Casse has been a perennial major player in the Canadian Triple Crown races and now has his first American classic. A four-time winner of Fort Erie’s biggest race and Canada’s middle jewel, the Prince of Wales, the Preakness was a reversal of fortune for the 58-year-old trainer.
He was right in the middle of the Kentucky Derby controversy two weeks ago, when War of Will was the horse first impeded when Maximum Security veered out of his path, eventually leading to a historic disqualification.
Saturday’s win before 131,256 more than made up for the disappointment the conditioner felt in Kentucky.
“I just wanted a fair shot,” said Casse. “You know, we were coming back in two weeks, and there were a lot of fresh shooters. So I was extremely proud.”
One of racing’s more aggressive trainers, he wasn’t one bit concerned about the short time span between the first two classics.
“Anybody that knows me or follows my training, they know I’m aggressive and not afraid to take chances,” said Casse, who is based in Kentucky. “We won the Breeders’ Cup with Shamrock Rose last year off of two weeks. Personally, I don’t think it’s done enough. I think too many times trainers are too worried about their win percentages. I’m not, we’re not afraid to run them.”
It was jockey Tyler Gaffalione’s first classic win in his young and burgeoning career. He rode the rail artfully early and kept him near the lead before cutting the corner at the top of the stretch to slip inside the front-running Warrior’s Charge before the eighth pole.
He dusted Warrior’s Charge, who faded to fourth, and held off the two late closers, Everfast on the inside and Owendale on the outside to hit the wire in 1:54.34. It was the fastest Preakness since Curlin in 2007, who completed the 1 3/16-mile trek in 1:53.46.
“We just followed Warrior’s Charge the whole way around there,” said Gaffalione. “He came off the fence going into the turn, and I thought about waiting to go outside him, but he kept going out. So I took my shot and went through there. The horse didn’t hesitate and he finished the job.”
War of Will went off at 6-1 and returned $14.20 to his backers for the win, $7.40 to place and $5.40 to show. Everfast, who was the final horse entered in the race earlier in the week, paid $32 to place and $14.40 to show. Post time selection Owendale was a late closing third, beaten a nose for second and paid $6 to show.
Everfast, trained by Dale Romans, got to the rail early to save ground and waited patiently through the fast early fractions set by the front runners. As they turned for home, jockey Joel Rosario tucked the Take Charge Indy colt inside and set his sights on the winner, finishing 1 1/4-lengths behind.
“He broke really well and got to the inside early,” Rosario said outside the jockey scale after the race. “He saved energy early and was able to make one big run. He ran a big race.”
Owendale just missed catching Everfast at the wire for the placing, jockey Florent Geroux blamed himself for tracking the wrong horse early and was forced to go seven-wide at the top of the stretch before making his late kicking stretch drive.
“I thought I was going to do something really good, I wish I could have really followed the winner, but the spot was already occupied, you know,” said Geroux in the trackside winner’s circle after the race. “I was inside most of the way around, but I was following the wrong horse.”
While Geroux was insistent that he did not get stuck inside, trainer Brad Cox thought Owendale needed more clearing to have a chance to win.
“He’s a big horse, probably needs to be more out in the open, clear running where he can keep his motor rolling," Cox said. "He took a little while to get going, but ran a great race and I was very proud of him.”
The Preakness was not without its contribution to this bizarre Triple Crown season. Bodexpress reared at the start and threw Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez off his mount.
The son of Bodemeister circled the track rider-less and wasn’t corralled by an outrider until well after the race. Velazquez walked off the track unharmed.
With the future location of the second jewel more in doubt than ever, aging and broken down Pimlico has seen better days.
The Stronach Group has made limited investments in the Pimlico infrastructure, while investing heavily in nearby Laurel Park, a site midway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
The future of the Preakness at Pimlico seems to be moving closer to finality. This year, the north grandstand was condemned, closed and covered up with black banners; the annual plumbing issues surfaced again on Saturday -- an aging plant trying to service thousands of customers on its one big day of the year.
War of Will’s wow performance on Saturday gave race fans another lasting memory of Old Hilltop as it continues to fade to black.
In three weeks, we’ll see if the New York Racing Association and Belmont Park can deliver an exciting conclusion to this wild and wacky Triple Crown season.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association and tweets @EquiSpace.