First, there was fear. Then disappointment. Later, it was indignation.
Two weeks after the history-making 145th edition of the Kentucky Derby, War of Will finally got the one thing his trainer and jockey had been asking for.
“We were this close to never seeing him again,” said Mark Casse, referencing the Derby incident with Maximum Security at the five-sixteenths pole. “I'm not even calling it redemption. You know what, I didn't feel like he got his fair shot, and that's all I wanted: a fair shot. He showed what he had today.”
This Saturday, Gary Barber's 3-year-old son of War Front had to contend with the one-post once again, and there was a loud concert still going which upset the colt while he was being saddled on the turf course. Nonetheless, War of Will and jockey Tyler Gaffalione prevailed, getting through a narrow gap at the rail to pull away and win the 144th Preakness Stakes by 1 1/4 lengths at odds of 6-1.
“He's so special,” said Gaffalione, a third-generation jockey. “We always knew he had the ability, we just had to get a little bit lucky and today was our day.”
Longshot Everfast finished second, while Owendale and Warrior's Charge filled out the superfecta. The 5-2 favorite Improbable finished sixth.
The start of the Preakness brought more drama to the 2019 Triple Crown picture when Bodexpress reared just as the gate opened and deposited Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez in the Pimlico dirt.
“He was just not behaving good in the gate,” said Velazquez, unharmed after the fall. “He was not standing really well. He got me up against the wall in the gate. When the doors opened I was standing up right from the start and I kind of jumped sideways. I had my feet out of the irons and I lost my balance and I went off. I'm good, I'm good. It's just disappointing when you come in here for a big race like this. Things like this happen with horses, but it's disappointing.”
The much-publicized incident in the Kentucky Derby saw War of Will stuck on the rail at the five-sixteenths pole. Gaffalione tried to angle outside Maximum Security at that point, but the frontrunner darted out several paths and caused several rivals, including War of Will, to take up sharply.
War of Will wound up finishing eighth that day, but was placed seventh after the controversial disqualification of Maximum Security.
“Honestly, right after the Derby I just felt — it's hard to believe, but I felt joy and relief that he was okay and that we didn't have the worst disaster in horse racing history,” said Casse. “It didn't start until about Tuesday, and Tuesday there was a remark that was made that it was Tyler's fault, and that got me pretty fired up. And then I read where they were blaming War of Will. I then became not so — not quite as nice, and I was irritated. I said other words that I later regretted because they put them in headlines.
“With the exception that our horse was a little too eager in the Derby, we had a great trip until — I call it the incident,” said Casse, laughing. “You know, I would like to think if it wasn't for the incident, it would have been an interesting race down the lane.”
After two weeks of back-and-forth in the media and unending questions about how War of Will might have finished had he not been impeded, Casse and Gaffalione were ready to prove their colt's worth in the middle jewel of the Triple Crown.
Prior to the race, only five of the 13 entrants chose to follow tradition and saddle their horses outside on the turf course. War of Will was one of those, and he was joined by Bourbon War, Signalman, Everfast and Win Win Win. The other eight trainers chose to saddle their horses in Pimlico's indoor paddock, then joined the rest of the field on the turf course just as the loud infield concert came to a close.
Once the field was in the starting gate, Bodexpress was not the only Preakness entrant to act unsettled. Race-favorite Improbable reared just before the start, but touched down and stood before the gates opened. Meanwhile, War of Will broke with the field and Gaffalione was able to settle him into stride far more than he had been able to in the Derby. He took the colt back to fourth in the early going, tracking the frontrunning Warrior's Charge.
Warrior's Charge and Javier Castellano angled over to the rail in front of War of Will, and were flanked by Market King and Anothertwistafate in the early stages. The first quarter flashed on the tote board in 22.50 seconds, but Warrior's Charge slowed the pace in the second quarter by a full second to mark the half-mile in :46.16.
By the clubhouse turn, Warrior's Charge had a one-length lead over Market King and Anothertwistafate, while War of Will maintained his position at the rail in fourth. Alwaysmining was up close early, and was followed by Win Win Win, Improbable, Bourbon War, Owendale, Signalman, Everfast, and Laughing Fox.
Approaching the far turn, a patient Gaffalione had to wait to make his move. Finally, after six furlongs in 1:10.56, Warrior's Charge appeared to falter a bit and stepped off the rail. War of Will saw the hole and gunned for it.
“I thought about waiting to go outside him, but he kept going out, out, out,” said Gaffalione. “So I took my shot and went through there. The horse didn't hesitate and he finished the job.”
The long-striding bay colt took charge of the race in the stretch and pulled away late to win by 1 1/4 lengths. Everfast came closing up the rail from the rear of the field to gain second by a nose over Owendale, while Warrior's Charge had to settle for fourth.
The remaining order of finish was as follows: Laughing Fox, Improbable, Win Win Win, Bourbon War, Signalman, Anothertwistafate, Alwaysmining, and Market King. Bodexpress ran all the way around the course with the field, and was eventually apprehended by outriders after the wire.
Bred in Kentucky by Flaxman Holdings, War of Will was sold overseas after he RNA'd for $175,000 at the Keeneland September sale. Justin Casse picked the colt out at the Arqana 2-year-old breeze-up sale, securing him for a final bid of $298,550. By War Front, the colt began his career on the turf and earned a G1 placing in his second start in the Summer Stakes at Woodbine. Still a maiden in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf, War of Will ran a wide trip to finish respectably in fifth.
Barber insisted that Casse try the colt on the dirt, and War of Will broke his maiden over Churchill's sloppy track with ease. He won his next two starts, the G3 Lecomte and the G2 Risen Star, earning a spot in the Run for the Roses.
In his final prep race, the first unlucky stroke fell when War of Will displaced the patella in his stifle joint shortly out of the starting gate. He finished an uncharacteristic ninth that day, but Casse found confidence when the colt was feeling much better the following morning.
War of Will made the starting gate on the first Saturday in May, but his chances were likely compromised by Maximum Security's foul and he had to settle for an official seventh-place finish. The Preakness win improves his overall record to four wins from 10 starts for earnings of $1.4 million.
“We almost got it done a couple of years ago,” Casse went on, referencing the head defeat of Classic Empire in the 2017 Preakness. “This is even I think probably more special given everything that we've been through… I've been following horse racing since I was like five, so 50-some years, and the Preakness has always been so big to me. But you know, I just felt like there was so much written, so much said that our horse never had a — he wasn't going to win, he wasn't going to to do this, and I felt bad. I felt bad for him, and I felt very bad for Gary Barber.
“I just wanted a fair shot. 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. Bit it wasn't — a lot of people said, 'Oh, is this revenge, or?' — no, I just wanted to win.”
Casse indicated that the Belmont Stakes is not outside the realm of possibility for War of Will.
“A very important guy who's not here today is David Carroll, my main guy, and he had him all winter long,” Casse said. “[War of Will] will go back to Keeneland… I would say if all goes well, you know us, we like to run. We'll probably be at Belmont.”
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