Despite the controversies and horse racing continually working to reinvent itself with modern technology, the sport’s future will remain bright as long as the Thoroughbred can captivate us like no other animal and inspire deep passion in people starting at a young age. It is the centuries-old love of the horse that will guarantee its preservation.
As in most races, there are several storylines behind the victory of War of Will in the Preakness Stakes, most notably how the door that closed in his face at a crucial point in the Kentucky Derby flung wide open in almost the exact same spot in the Preakness Stakes. In the Derby he saw nothing but the rump of Maximum Security staring him in the face, but in the Preakness there was nothing but wide open spaces as he rode the rail with an unobstructed view throughout most of the race.
You can put any title on it you wish – retribution, payback, redemption, justice. Any one can serve as the storyline.
That may be the story of the Preakness, but it is not the story of War of Will. His story goes well beyond the scenes from Churchill Downs or Pimlico, how he inspired the love of a young girl and all the joy he brought to her and her mother. When a 9-year-old girl falls in love with a horse and writes songs about him and draws pictures of him, that in the long run has a far deeper impact on the sport and its future. That lasts a lifetime.
No other sport is based on competition, courage, beauty, and the love of the athlete like Thoroughbred racing. That is why War of Will winning the Preakness brought such joy to 9-year-old Eva Lytle, but it was getting to pet him and feed him a mint the day before the race that will remain an unforgettable experience and lasting memory. It is those special personal moments that are everlasting and help perpetuate the centuries-old bond between humans and horses.
Eva and her mother Sherri share that special bond – the love of the Thoroughbred, especially those special ones that have a profound effect on their lives. For Eva and Sherri it started last summer at Claiborne Farm when Eva got to meet War Front close up and have her picture taken with him. When his son War of Will entered their lives early this year at Fair Grounds and Eva was taken by his striking good looks it was love at first sight.
Sherri posted on Facebook: “Our Hero War of Will runs in this year's Kentucky Derby. We (Eva especially) love War of Will, and are so grateful that he is doing well.”
On the day of the Kentucky Derby draw Eva, with help from her mother, wrote a song about War of Will and sang it on Facebook.
Sherri had been a fan of two previous horses trained by Mark Casse, Classic Empire and Danzig Moon, and when she first showed Eva a photo of the Casse-trained War of Will, she was struck by his beauty. She also loved his nickname of “WOW,” derived from his initials, and that convinced her how special he was.
The Kentucky Derby was heartbreaking for them, but they were, “so grateful he did not fall,” Sherri said. “Mark is such a classy guy. He was just so happy to have his horse alive and well. That meant more to him than the Kentucky Derby. Eva loves to root for the good guys and Mark Casse definitely is one of the good guys.”
For Mother’s Day, Eva wrote her mother a card with a drawing of a horse, which read: “Let’s Go War of Will.”
When War of Will arrived in Baltimore, Sherri posted on Facebook, “War of Will arrived early this morning in Baltimore! Hoping, praying we get to see him on Friday morning!”
Growing up in Harford County, Md., the Preakness has always been a special race to Sherri. She now lives in York, Pa., about an hour north of Baltimore, with her husband and two daughters, Eva and her older sister Anissa. So this was their opportunity to finally see War of Will close up. They were unable to attend the Preakness due to another commitment on that day, but they were intent on seeing War of Will, so with Anissa having to stay home to take a test at school, Sherri had Eva take a sick day and they headed down to Pimlico with Eva’s dad the morning before the race, leaving at 5:45 a.m. to attend the Sunrise at Old Hilltop backstretch tour. They were hoping to time it right so they could see War of Will getting bathed after his morning gallop.
As soon as they arrived they saw War of Will leaving the track so they quickly signed up for the next backstretch tour. When they were put in the second tour they knew they likely were not going to get to the Preakness barn in time to see him getting his bath. But as fate would have it, group one did not assemble in time, so their group went first.
On the backstretch tour visitors get to see a former jockey who lets everyone feel and see items used in racing – a saddle, jockey boots, goggles, etc. Then he gets on the equicizer that jockeys use to practice getting their rhythm. When the presentation is finished, the tour guide takes the group back to the barns, where they see the Budweiser Clydesdales before going to the Preakness barn in the hope of possibly seeing a Preakness horse.
The first thing they did was tell their tour guide that Eva really wanted to see War of Will. When they arrived at the Preakness barn, sure enough there was War of Will getting his bath outside the barn. Eva saw Mark Casse and went over to him and told him how much she loved War of Will.
“We had no idea Mark Casse was going to be there and speak with us at the barn,” Sherri said. “And then we were so happy when he asked Eva to come behind the fence to pet War of Will. We had 23 other people, including other kids, on that tour with us, but he chose Eva because he could clearly tell she knew who War of Will was and saw how much she loved him.”
And so, Eva, her face lit up with joy, left the group and went over to pet her favorite horse, who she had drawn pictures of and written songs about.
“I loved it,” Casse said. “It was so precious seeing her face.”
Standing nearby was War of Will’s exercise rider Kim Carroll.
“I think for someone her age it would be like meeting a movie star, except when you love horses it’s even better,” she said. “Family is everything to Mark, so in a sense, he made a little girl’s dream come true.
“I have a daughter who galloped with me before she was born and is now 23 years old. After leaving college she went to work for Phillip Dutton Eventing with hopes to ride professionally at the upper levels with her own eventing barn one day. It’s so lovely to meet children with a passion for horses. It never ends.”
So Eva, having met her hero up close and personal, watched the Preakness the following day from a Quality Inn in Ocean City, Md.
“I wish we could have attended the Preakness this year, but we didn't because my husband’s job has him doing training near the beach this year, so we left Pimlico and headed straight there Friday morning at 9 a.m. after the Sunrise tours were done,” Sherri said. “Some years we have attended the Preakness and last year we attended Black-Eyed Susan day. This year we just made time to do the Sunrise tour, hoping to just see War of Will.”
The Preakness was the culmination of a very special weekend for the Lytle family. Eva got to pet her favorite horse and feed him peppermints, talk to his trainer, and watch him and his sire go into the history books.
“Was Eva excited? I would say so,” Sherri said. “She was cheering him on and jumping up and down. I was too. We are so happy for War of Will and Mark Casse. Words cannot express how happy we are.”
Yes, all the stories about this year’s Preakness will be about retribution and getting the perfect trip this time and how Mark Casse’s faith in his horse finally was justified following two weeks of anguish, in which he felt compelled to defend War of Will after some people blamed his horse for causing the near catastrophe at Churchill Downs by going where he shouldn’t have gone. An irate Casse would have none of that, especially considering what might have happened to his horse. It was also the story of how Mark Casse’s younger brother Justin plucked War of Will out of the Aquana May Breeze-Up Sale in Deauville, France, after he failed to meet his reserve at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale the year before, And it was about how the one-two finishers of the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds would go on to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.
But in the grand scheme of things, the behind-the-scenes feel-good story of the Preakness, one that we rarely get a chance to see or read about, took place the morning before the race when War of Will truly was the “WOW” horse to a little girl who came to Pimlico just to see and touch the horse she loved.
Eva gets to pet her hero War of Will as trainer Mark Casse looks on
Eva won two horses at Ocean City, Md. and of course named them War of Will and War Front