Jockey Tyler Gaffalione was not shy about offering high praise for War Of Will.
“He’s just an athlete, really,” Gaffalione said. “I kind of compare him to Michael Jordan. He’s great at everything he does.”
But can he shoot at long range and defend?
“I’m sure that if he had a chance that he could.”
OK, so there are those – this writer especially – who would say that only Secretariat is in M.J.’s league – and vice-versa. But Gaffalione’s point about War Of Will is well taken.
“I can put him inside, outside,” Gaffalione told VSiN in a telephone interview this week from Kentucky. “I know that whatever I do with him he can take the challenge. He’s so light on his feet.”
But how will that athleticism translate with another 550 yards added to the Preakness distance to get the 1½ miles of next month’s Belmont Stakes? Forget about Jordan. Does War Of Will really have to become more like star marathoner Eliud Kipchoge?
“I liked the fact that even afterwards, when they were galloping out, he took off again,” his trainer Mark Casse said the morning after the Preakness. “He wasn’t going to let them go by.”
But that was after 9½ furlongs last Saturday – after the race was run and won. What about when they are in the short homestretch in two weeks at Belmont Park? Does War Of Will have the athleticism needed to win in what will be his third race in five weeks?
Oddsmakers off shore and overseas have made War Of Will (best price of 7-2) the second choice behind Wood Memorial winner Tacitus (2-1), a mid-pack horse last seen finishing fourth and promoted to third in the Kentucky Derby. The only other seemingly possible entrants with best-priced odds shorter than 10-1 are juvenile champion Game Winner (5-1), whose trainer Bob Baffert is on the fence about sending him to New York, and third-place Preakness finisher Owendale (13-2).
As for War Of Will, Casse said that it was a challenge just to get him ready for the Preakness just two weeks after sloppy conditions and result-changing traffic led to a late fade to eighth before being promoted to seventh at Churchill Downs.
“He’s tough and able to overcome things,” Casse said. “The Derby was very, very trying. I was worried about that with him. He was a little foot-sore for a little while afterward. But he’s a little different. He is an athlete. We should all be thankful. I’m not sure everybody would have survived the bumping and the contact.”
Ah, yes. War Of Will is never far from what Casse refers to as “The Incident,” in which he was cut off by disqualified winner Maximum Security to the point where a hoof placed a few inches either way to the left or the right could have caused a catastrophic Derby pile-up. But that matter is now in the hands of lawyers hired by Maximum Security’s owners Gary and Mary West and a lawsuit that has compelled Gaffalione to stay quiet about all things related to the Derby.
But that does not prevent him from looking ahead to what he might have to do to mind War Of Will’s pace in the Belmont.
“I have a ton of confidence in him, more so after his last couple races,” Gaffalione said. “He doesn’t need the lead. He can sit behind horses. He definitely has the ability to win that kind of race. I think (the Preakness) proved how much ability he has and how good a horse he is.”
Maybe it is a case of letting this 3-year-old colt sired by War Front be himself – whatever that may be. Whether it is the himself that was close to the lead when he was on a three-race winning streak that included the Lecomte and the Risen Star. Or the himself that conceded 3½ lengths on his way to winning the Preakness.
“The main thing is just trying to get him to relax,” Gaffalione said. “It seemed like the strategy that we used last time worked pretty well. Mark had told me in the paddock to just keep him relaxed. Just jog him a little bit. Let him walk. I’m sure we’ll go into the Belmont with the same mindset.”
With no obvious pace-setter among the early probables, tactical speed should be at a premium June 8 at Belmont Park. And Gaffalione is just fine with that.
“Don’t ask much of him,” he said. “Just let him place himself. Just try to keep him relaxed and as calm as possible.”
Racing notes and opinions
Among the horses reported to be possible entrants in the Belmont Stakes, here are their best win odds from among Bovada, US Racing and Europe via Oddschecker:
7-2 War Of Will
5-1 Game Winner
12-1 Master Fencer
14-1 Intrepid Heart
16-1 Sir Winston
Maximum Security’s owners Gary and Mary West have used the public-relations team at Monmouth Park, N.J., to trumpet their lawsuit, which was designed to reclaim the Kentucky Derby victory that stewards took from them. So it should come as less than zero surprise that the colt is being aimed at the July 20th running of the $1 million Grade 1 Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park. They are also reported to be looking at the $150,000 Pegasus Stakes on June 16 as a prep. They have ruled out a run by Maximum Security in the Belmont Stakes.
Two mothballed racecourses have been given new life. Nine years after closing under the name Yavapai Downs, the track at Prescott, Ariz., now known as Arizona Downs opens Friday for the first time since 2010. New owners J&J Equine Enterprises bought the track out of bankruptcy for $3.22 million last year and spent $7 million on renovations. Arizona Downs will host 35 days of thoroughbred and quarter-horse races mostly on Saturdays and Sunday through this summer.
Colonial Downs in New Kent County, Va., is due to open in August for a 15-day meeting, the track’s first since 2014. New management announced $1.8 million in stakes races including the $250,000 Grade 3 Virginia Derby on Aug. 31. Race days will be mostly Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings from Aug. 8 to Sept. 7. The track had been idle because track management and horsemen could not come to financial terms on how to reopen it. That all changed last year, when the Virginia state government authorized machine games featuring old horse races to help fill purses.
The Maryland Jockey Club announced last Saturday that attendance at the Preakness was 131,256, some 9,071 short of the record announced two years ago. A racing media type that I know used to respond to such crowd counts with a two-word phrase rhyming with pull fit. The infield was not nearly as packed as recent years, and the north grandstand was condemned, removing about 6,000 seats. The incredible crowd count also cast doubt on the veracity of the Preakness day handle of $99,852,653, an announced record despite the absence of a Kentucky Derby winner for the first time in 23 years. The money will eventually be audited, but the crowd count is another matter. I have always maintained that there is no disincentive for fabricating attendance figures. But in the current legal fight over the future of the Preakness at Pimlico, the Maryland Racing Commission reported total Pimlico attendance in 2017 was 121,402, about 70,000 fewer than announced by the Maryland Jockey Club. So maybe there will be a penalty for padding crowd counts.
Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com and more frequently during coverage of big races. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. Jockey Tyler Gaffalione looks back on his win on board War Of Will in the Preakness and talks about how he may run in the Belmont Stakes. Xpressbet and XBTV handicapper Jeff Siegel offers an early preview of the Belmont. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available at iTunes, Apple, Google, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts.