Louisiana favorite War Of Will could make some Derby noise

Lou_Hodges_Jr_Hodges_Photography_photo_of_War_Of_Will
Ridden by Tyler Gaffalione, War Of Will won last month's Risen Star Stakes and is favored in Saturday's Louisiana Derby. (Lou Hodges Jr./Hodges Photography courtesy of Fair Grounds Race Course and Slots)

Las Vegas

The fickle nature of Kentucky Derby futures betting may have no better microcosm than a $1 million race this weekend at New Orleans.

Favorites have won 42 percent of the Derby points preps (11 of 26) in the U.S. this season. If chalk prevails again in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby, War of Will may turn into the favorite to win in six weeks at Churchill Downs. Yes, the same War Of Will that started his career 0-for-4 on the turf, including a fifth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf.

“Luckily, looking back, it was a good thing he didn’t win the Breeders’ Cup,” his trainer Mark Casse said in a teleconference this week. “He wouldn’t be where he is today.”

Where he is today is 3-for-3 on the dirt, including pace-chasing victories at New Orleans in the Lecomte and Risen Star stakes. Now War Of Will (6-5) is the morning-line favorite for the 1⅛-mile, win-and-you’re-in Kentucky Derby qualifier Saturday at 6:13 p.m. EDT at the Fair Grounds. A victory may vault him from 7-1 at William Hill to the top of the Derby futures.

And to think that the move from turf to dirt was very nearly the best move that Casse never made.

“He did run well in the Breeders’ Cup on the turf, and he was second in a Grade 1 (Summer Stakes at Woodbine), so he did show form on the turf,” Casse told VSiN. “He’s a pretty good horse on the turf. But all along he trained extremely well on the dirt. After his defeat in the Breeders’ Cup, we thought the timing was right. We got him at Churchill Downs. He was training well, so we gave it a shot.”

A five-length maiden victory in the Churchill slop last Nov. 24 set up War Of Will for his New Orleans campaign. Now he is on the verge of becoming just the fifth horse to sweep the three Derby preps at the Fair Grounds, a feat most recently accomplished four years ago by International Star.

“Without being cocky here, no, it didn’t surprise me,” Casse said of War Of Will’s taking to the dirt. “We always thought a lot of him. His running style is definitely what you’re looking for, especially for say a (Kentucky) Derby. You want a horse that has some speed. If you look at recent history, especially since the point system has come about, horses up close to the pace have done well in the Derby.”

The Louisiana Derby will be a rematch for six of the top seven finishers from the Risen Star. Last month’s race was 110 yards shorter, and it was contested at a pace that was far from withering (23.71, 47.36, 1:12.20). So it cannot be ignored that runner-up Country House and especially third-place Roiland, both deep closers, were making up ground all the way to the finish. That was while jockey Tyler Gaffalione was vigorously urging War Of Will from the top of the stretch until the final 50 yards of a 2¼-length victory.

Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott has had only one Kentucky Derby horse in the last decade. But Country House (9-2), the second choice on Saturday’s morning line, could join Hidden Scroll and Tacitus on the trip from his barn to Churchill Downs. Although he is only a maiden winner, Country House had a head of steam late in the Rebel, lugging Luís Sáez to the finish after turning his head twice toward the grandstand.

“Apart from the eventual winner, he got past everyone,” Mott said. “I really can’t tell you what caused the lugging in.  But we’re hopeful that he’s not going to do it again. That’s the only time I’ve seen it.”

Sent off at odds of 69-1, Roiland (12-1) was cruising in last place until the final turn of the Rebel, 16½ lengths off the lead and out of the main camera shot on the Fair Grounds TV feed. Then James Graham hit the accelerator, found a path through traffic in the stretch and popped through with a hard charge to third. That effort showed that Roiland, drawn into the rail post Saturday, may thrive staying a longer distance for trainer Tom Amoss.

“The most positive thing about it was where he came from in the last three-eighths of a mile, how quickly he ran to get to that position of third and the fact that he was running best of all in the end,” Amoss said. “Those things are encouraging. Our hope is, of course, that the pace is quick up front. That would enhance his late finish.”

Hog Creek Hustle (12-1) was also far back in the Rebel before he was sent forward. But Florent Geroux’s move looked premature, especially since he was hung out seven wide turning for home. Hog Creek Hustle never made up any more ground, and the only reason he finished fourth was because he passed tiring horses. For the Louisiana Derby, trainer Vickie Foley has replaced Geroux with Miguel Mena.

“We had a very wide trip the whole way in the Risen Star,” Foley said. “We don’t have to be in front, but we should at least be more into the race than we were last time.”

Among the new shooters, Southwest runner-up Sueño (8-1) and Todd Pletcher’s impressive allowance winner Spinoff (8-1) figure to get the biggest chunk of the handle.

There is enough early speed with War Of Will and Spinoff to suggest that there will be a come-and-get-it feel to this race. If that translates into anything faster than a walking-the-dog pace, then Roiland will feel right at home. The fact that he comes with value means he will be prominent on my tickets, especially across the board. Boxed exotics will include Country House, Sueño and War Of Will.

Winning the Louisiana Derby or even running in it is not historically a strong bellwether for May 4. Since 1981 there have been 78 horses that have used it as a prep for the Kentucky Derby. Only two went on to win at Churchill Downs; Grindstone was first in both in 1996 and Funny Cide was second at the Fair Grounds before winning the roses in 2003. The only other horse to win both the Louisiana and Kentucky derbies was Black Gold in 1924. And none of the horses that have swept the Fair Grounds preps went on to win at Churchill.

But Amoss sounded bullish on his rival, potentially agreeing with bettors and bookmakers who may be convinced this weekend that War Of Will is for real. “I think he is not only the horse to beat on Saturday, I think he is the horse to beat the first Saturday of May if he continues the way he’s going.”

Baffert sends Mucho Gusto to Sunland

Even before the suspension of racing to investigate 22 horse deaths at Santa Anita, Bob Baffert had planned to send Mucho Gusto on the road. But when first-stringers Game Winner and Improbable went to last week’s Rebel Stakes, that diverted Mucho Gusto from there to a race that Baffert has won three times in the 15 times it has been run.

Breaking from the rail post, Mucho Gusto (8-5) is the morning-line favorite for the $800,000 Grade 3 Sunland Derby on Sunday at 7:30 p.m. EDT near El Paso. Worth half as much as the Louisiana Derby, the winner of this 1⅛-mile race is likely to have enough points to get to the gate in the Kentucky Derby.

Most of the early speed in the field of 10 is to the inside, which is where most of the quality is, too. El Camino Real Derby winner Anothertwistafate (3-1) and eight-time New Mexico winner Hustle Up (5-1) were drawn just outside Mucho Gusto and will be wanting the lead going into the first turn.

Trained by Steve Asmussen, Wicked Indeed (6-1) is one of two pure closers in the race. He was the 9-10 favorite finishing second to Hustle Up in last month’s Mine That Bird Derby on the same track. If the race were 110 yards longer as this one is, Wicked Indeed might have won.

Pletcher ships in Cutting Humor (8-1), a maiden winner ridden by John Velázquez that is trying his sixth track in as many races. A $400,000 purchase by Starlight Racing, he withered to a seventh-place finish as the 2-1 favorite last month in the Southwest Stakes.

My ticket will include Mucho Gusto, Wicked Indeed, Cutting Humor and Diamond Blitz (15-1), a well-bred maiden winner that is in from California for the Desormeaux brothers. He could get a piece of purse if his early speed holds up.

Racing notes and opinions

Thankfully, after a quiet and safe week of training since a 22nd horse died there this winter, Santa Anita is still scheduled to resume racing next Friday. To end what will have been a costly three-week suspension, the Stronach Group and the Thoroughbred Owners of California agreed to a compromise on new drug regulations. Instead of Belinda Stronach’s unilateral command to have no tolerance for Lasix, the two sides agreed to allow only half-sized doses immediately at both Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields. They also agreed to phase out all race-day drugs over the next two years. The California Horse Racing Board still needs to approve these new rules, but it is expected to do so next Thursday. This does not, however, mean that no horse will ever die again at Santa Anita. It also does not mean that every horseman is convinced that the track surface that has been compromised by a rainy winter is really as safe as it could be. It is unrealistic to think that no horse will ever die again at Santa Anita. Hopefully it does not happen for a long while, but the question is what sort of firestorm will the next death cause – and how will Stronach and Santa Anita react. That uncertainty makes the future of west-coast racing all the more daunting.

The Los Angeles district attorney and Congress have been using the Santa Anita crisis as a stage to advance their respective causes. In the case of D.A. Jackie Lacey, her spokeswoman said that investigators were being assigned to work with the CHRB to look into the fatal breakdowns. While Lacey’s office provides the illusion of independence, her investigators are not exactly experts in this area. The same goes for Democratic Rep. Judy Chu, whose district includes Santa Anita. She wants a House committee to launch a Congressional investigation. Amid visions of a phalanx of briefcase-toting government bureaucrats descending on Arcadia, these are simply Pavlovian responses by public officials looking to justify their positions. More important may be the timing of a fourth attempt by Reps. Andy Barr (R-Ky.) and Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) to pass their law that would ban race-day Lasix and establish stronger, national restrictions on drugs for racehorses. In a non-election year, the Santa Anita trouble could provide more traction to get their bill passed. The last time there was a strong threat of Congressional intervention was 2008. That was when Eight Belles’s death at the Kentucky Derby and Big Brown’s being given legal doses of Winstrol led racing jurisdictions to beat Congress to the punch and ban steroids on their own. Will Santa Anita’s push to do the same thing with Lasix lead to a similar response in 2019? Stay tuned.

Erratum: I apologize for misreading a list of Rebel Stakes horses from the past and turning it into an incorrect stat both in last Friday’s column and again Sunday on Twitter. It was wrong to have written that 17 Kentucky Derby winners came out of the Rebel, but only three had won the Rebel. I transposed that. In truth there have been 17 Rebel Stakes winners to advance to the Kentucky Derby since 1983, and only three have won the roses.

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. Fair Grounds track announcer John G. Dooley helps to handicap Saturday’s Louisiana Derby. Trainer Mark Casse discusses his colt War Of Will, the favorite to win Saturday. There will also be a preview of Sunday’s Sunland Derby, another prep for Kentucky. The Racehorses by the Letters feature looks at the best ever starting with “T,” and Twitter feedback posted @ronflatter is sampled. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available at Apple, Google Play, Stitcher and other leading podcast platforms.

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