BALTIMORE — Before she ever collapsed in celebration at Pimlico Race Course watching War of Will charge across the finish line to win Saturday’s Preakness Stakes, Samantha Bussanich, an assistant groom for victorious trainer Mark Casse, spent several years observing the action of elite horse racing through a camera lens.
A high school internship with Cecil County-based photographer and Eclipse Sportswire founder Scott Serio, whose team has featured horse racing images in the Cecil Whig, as well as major publications, including Sports Illustrated and Horse Racing Nation, provided Bussanich an inside track to the sport she loved while growing up in Kentucky.
“I knew nothing about a camera, but I went out there and helped the team out in California,” said Bussanich, whose first assignment was shooting the 2016 Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita. “I love being around horses. I want to be around them as much as possible.”
The internship opened the door for other opportunities in the industry and motivated her to establish Nexus Racing Club, a social group dedicated to helping other young people engage with horse racing. It also landed her a part-time position in Casse’s barn in Keeneland, a little more than a year before War of Will arrived as a promising 2-year-old.
On Saturday, that journey led her inside the winner’s circle at Pimlico, her arms wrapped around the bay-colored neck of the most popular horse in the country.
“I’m glad someone caught [the scene of me celebrating at Preakness]. It’s definitely super dramatic, and people say that, but you know what? I don’t care. If they knew how much work everyone in this barn and the whole entire operation put into that horse, then they would understand why I’m so happy,” said Bussanich, who grew close to War of Will ever since she first saw him at Saratoga last summer. “You put so much love into this sport, and you don’t win the Preakness every day. I mean, Mark’s been in the horse industry for his whole entire life and this is his very first American Classic win. It’s so hard to win, and I’m only 21-years-old. The fact I got to win it with a horse that I love so much at such a young age, that video puts into view how much we love our horses and all the emotions we put into sport.
“He was my boy back then [as an unraced 2-year-old], so it’s pretty cool to see it all come full circle.”
Her place alongside the hero of Saturday’s Triple Crown race has shined a light on Nexus, which she co-founded with Dare Sutton and Sophie Shore in 2017.
“We noticed there’s a lack of initiative in this sport to bring young people into horse racing. The barrier of entry into the sport is pretty high. I always say you can get into basketball by picking up a ball and that’s it, but how do you get into racing? No one knows. It’s pretty hard. Hopefully, Nexus will provide a way for a lot more racing fans, even just young people, to get involved in the sport,” Bussanich said. “With Nexus, we bring members to the backside all the time and they meet all the horses. I think it’s really important. It’s the physical touch of petting a race horse that’s so incredible and seeing how the operation runs with your own eyes in the early-morning training hours. I just think that’s really important to get people to actually experience it rather than watching it on the screen.”
As one of his caretakers, Bussanich has spent plenty of mornings with War of Will. The thoroughbred highlights the prospective field at next weekend’s Belmont Stakes, the third jewel in horse racing’s Triple Crown.
If he runs, he will be the only entree to have competed in all three Triple Crown races this spring. Under jockey Tyler Gaffalione, War of Will rebounded to win the Preakness after tangling with eventually-disqualified Maximum Security in the controversial Kentucky Derby on May 4.
Officials ruled that Maximum Security, who crossed the finish line first at Churchill Downs, impeded the progress of several contenders, including War of Will. Country House, who was held out of the Preakness for health concerns, eventually won the Run for the Roses.
“I think it shows how good of a trainer Mark Casse is, to bring him back in the Preakness after that almost catastrophic Derby and have him win. Hopefully he runs well in the Belmont — we won’t know until the gates open — but as long as he’s training great and the horse feels that he’s ready, he’ll head over there,” Bussanich explained. “It’s pretty cool to have a horse run in all three races if he does. Nowadays, not a lot of trainers run their horses as much, but what’s awesome about Mark and (owner) Gary Barber, is that if they know the horse is training well, take that shot.
“It really pays off to run your horses if they’re doing well.”
Already in the history books, a victory would make War of Will just the 19th horse to ever win the last two legs of the Triple Crown. If he enters the race, Bussanich will likely once again tag along for the ride.
“Growing up in high school, I played basketball, and we always had the 24-hour rule. You celebrate for 24 hours and that’s it, you forget about that win and you move onto the next game. That’s what we’re kind of doing now. We won the Preakness, but we have a horse to train, babies to train that hopefully can do what War of Will has done. Now it’s time to hopefully look forward to the Belmont,” Bussanich said. “There’s really no words to describe it. I’ve got to be a part of a lot of big races, but winning the Preakness — it’s an American Classic, it’s one of the biggest races in the world — is quite amazing.”
Follow Jordan Schatz on Twitter: @Jordan_Whig