BALTIMORE — The emotion came in waves for Norman Casse, first out of angst, then out of possibility.
Watching the field go by for the first time in the 141st Kentucky Derby, Casse's stomach gripped as Danzig Moon — the bay colt with an attitude trained by his father, Mark Casse — fought to keep his feet while taking the worst of the bumping while sandwiched between Bolo and Carpe Diem.
"I knew he was in a world of trouble going by the first turn," said Norman Casse, assistant to his father. "And I was a little ... I was a little nervous."
Nerves then switched to pulse-quickening anticipation on the final turn as Danzig Moon blew by his Blue Grass Stakes conqueror Carpe Diem and took aim at the big trio blocking his path to classic glory.
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The end result would be realistic rather than fairy tale, a fifth-place finish behind race winner and champion American Pharoah. But his snapshot moments during the first leg of the Triple Crown told Danzig Moon's connections he had become all racehorse.
And when a horse is doing well, you don't leave them in the barn to simmer.
It took a handful of days post-Derby to get the green light from owner John Oxley, but the desire on the part of the Casses to run Danzig Moon back in Saturday's $1.5 million Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course was kicking around not long after the son of Malibu Moon delivered the admirable effort on May 2.
Sent off at odds of 22-to-1, he was the biggest surprise among the top finishers in the Kentucky Derby as the quartet ahead of him represented four of the top five betting interests. Next to American Pharoah, however, no other horse was touting themselves in the mornings at Churchill Downs the way Blue Grass Stakes runner-up Danzig Moon did in getting over the track.
"We were cautiously optimistic but we were realistic," said Norman Casse, who has overseen the majority of Danzig Moon's hands-on training. "We knew going in that the Derby was super tough. There were a lot of talented horses and we knew we'd really have to step our game up. So we went over knowing we would run well; we didn't go over thinking we were going to win.
"Going into the far turn ... he goes by Carpe Diem and you can tell we were still sitting on a lot of horse. And there was just that moment where you believe; hey, we've got a shot to win the Kentucky Derby and ... I don't know how to explain it. It's just a special moment. One I hope to capture again."
Though he sports only a maiden win from six starts, Danzig Moon has been that horse who has taken steps forward once the rubber hit the road.
Dubbed "bad boy" by his handlers because of the bruises and bite marks left in his wake, Danzig Moon broke his maiden in his third try when he won going a mile at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 7. His step up in the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby a month later was not inspiring as he struggled over that surface to run fourth behind Carpe Diem, but he was found to have a viral infection shortly after.
When he finished second to Carpe Diem in the Grade I Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 4, Norman Casse said it was as much a product of the colt getting his head in the game as a reflection of his talent.
When he overcame his rough start in the Derby and still tracked along in the second tier just behind pacesetter Dortmund, eventual runner-up Firing Line and American Pharoah, another dimension came to light.
"We knew he was always talented, it's just taken him a while to figure out he's a racehorse," Casse said. "We used to have to get after him, do things to make him run because he was always a little reluctant and timid. He's no longer like that.
"Watching the Derby and seeing how much early speed he has, I think shows you that he's more aggressive. He's figured out what he's going to do and I think that's what is going to make him a better racehorse."
In his first trip over the Pimlico main track Thursday morning, Danzig Moon galloped with his typical vigor and appeared in good flesh nearly two weeks after his Derby outing.
"I'm very excited about running him here because this track is a little deeper than Churchill and I think he'll like this track a little more," Casse said.
If Danzig Moon improves a little more, Casse and his father could get another tremble of fantastic anxiousness.
"It's hard to explain what it would mean (to win a classic) without sounding corny or cliché," Casse said. "It's a lifelong dream to win any one of these things."
American Pharoah, Dortmund hit the track
Kentucky Derby winner American Pharoah and third-place finisher Dortmund each looked fresh as the two stablemates went to the track for the first time Thursday after arriving at Pimlico Wednesday afternoon.
With exercise rider Jorge Alvarez aboard American Pharoah and Dana Barnes on Dortmund, the pair galloped around the oval with the Derby winner especially looking like he wanted to do more.
"Dortmund came by first. He was really moving well," trainer Bob Baffert said. "You could see he was comfortable. American Pharoah, as always, he just floats over the track. He looked very eager. I was really happy with the way they went over it. They looked healthy and bright, in top condition. There is no regressing there."