Trainer Mark Casse will not call it revenge for what happened in the Kentucky Derby – even if it was just that for War Of Will on Saturday evening in the Preakness Stakes.
“I just wanted a fair shot,” Casse said. “A lot of people asked me was this revenge. No. I just wanted to win.”
It is a stretch to say that War Of Will would have won the Derby had he not been cut off by Maximum Security. But it is entirely reasonable to say that he was much the best in winning here at Pimlico.
Skillfully ridden by Tyler Gaffalione within 3½ lengths of the early lead, War Of Will (6-1) cut a path along the open rail and charged into the lead at the top of the stretch on the way to a 1¼-length victory on a sun-baked, fast track.
“We just followed Warrior’s Charge the whole way around there, and he came off the fence going into the turn,” said Gaffalione, 24, the country’s top apprentice jockey four years ago. “I thought about waiting to go outside him, but he kept going out, out, out. So I took my shot and went through there. The horse didn’t hesitate, and he finished the job.”
New shooters that did not race in the Derby were the next four across the line. Everfast (29-1), the second longest shot on the board, rallied from 11th on the turn to finish second, a nose ahead of another closer, Owendale (7-1). The early pacesetter Warrior’s Charge (12-1) finished a hard-fought fourth, 1¼ lengths ahead of Laughing Fox (21-1).
Betting favorite Improbable (5-2) was never a factor finishing sixth.
War Of Will was on the betting drift most of the day both here at Pimlico and back in Las Vegas. He was as short as 4-1 in the Westgate Superbook futures Saturday morning. He was 7-1 at William Hill an hour before post time.
Even though only four of the 13 Preakness starters ran for the roses two weeks ago, this marked the 32nd time in the last 36 runnings of this race that a Derby horse finished first. That lends further credence to the theory that if a new shooter were as good as those horses that were at Churchill Downs, he would have been in the Derby.
So even though War Of Will faded to eighth two weeks ago – promoted to seventh when Maximum Security’s victory was voided – he was still more than a cut above most of his wannabe rivals Saturday.
Casse thought he had something special early this spring.
“I had him in Saratoga,” he said. “Everybody would come by the barn to see (two-time graded-stakes winner) Wonder Gadot. And I would say, ‘Do you want to see a really, really good horse?’ And I brought him out, and I would show him.”
Then it followed that Casse would turn War Of Will’s initials into an acronym.
“That’s when we started calling him WOW,” he said. “A lot of people said, ‘Why are you so excited?’ Because I do train a lot of horses. Derby week he breezed, and everybody was like, ‘WOW.’ And I was like, ‘Now you know what I’ve been seeing.’”
Part of the War Front colt’s late development was because Casse had him on turf for the first four races of his career. War Of Will finally broke his maiden on a sloppy main track at Churchill Downs last November, and that was followed by wins at the Fair Grounds in the Lecomte and Risen Star.
A ninth-place finish in the Louisiana Derby as the 4-5 favorite took the bloom off in late March, and bettors playing Derby futures started to walk away. But War Of Will had an alibi. He spun his wheels in the gate and suffered a muscle strain that proved minor.
At the time Casse said “I just feel fortunate that he’s OK.” Those were sentiments he repeated about what he now calls “The Incident” at the Derby.
“I felt joy and relief that he was OK and that we didn’t have the worst disaster in horse-racing history,” Casse said Saturday night. “I was good the next day. I was fine.”
And back to the business of preparing War Of Will to deliver him and Gaffalione their first victory in a Triple Crown race, even if it was watered down by the absence of Derby winner Country House – and Maximum Security.
“This is the Preakness,” Casse said. “We just won the Preakness. I really don’t care who was in it.”
Preakness day notes and opinions
Casse said he expected to run War Of Will in next month’s Belmont Stakes. But that also depended on what owner Gary Barber would say. “We’ll see how he acts, and if all goes well,” Casse said, “we’ll probably send him up maybe 10 days before the Belmont.” Barber was not here at Pimlico on Saturday. A movie producer and former chairman of MGM, Barber was attending the Cannes Film Festival in France.
The maiden Bodexpress threw his rider John Velázquez at the start and ran loose behind the pack in the Preakness. Velázquez walked away and said he was not hurt. Bodexpress appeared uninjured and was finally corralled after taking two laps around the track. Stewards ruled Bodexpress to have started the race, so bettors were not entitled to refunds.
Making his return to turf in his 4-year-old debut, Catholic Boy (7-5) responded in the stretch to the urging of jockey Javier Castellano to win Saturday’s $250,000 Grade 2 Dixie Stakes for open company over 1 1/16 miles on the firm grass at Pimlico. Trained by Jonathan Thomas, Catholic Boy finished a half-length ahead of Admission Office (5-1) and a length better than Just Howard (12-1). Winner of three straight races on the grass, the 4-year-old ridgling sired by More Than Ready also won last year’s Grade 1 Travers on the dirt at Saratoga before being eased to 13th in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. ... Never better than sixth since his debut win last summer, Lexitonian (17-1) showed a burst of speed between horses in the last furlong to win by a head in the $200,000 Grade 3 Chick Lang six-furlong sprint for 3-year-olds on the main track. José Ortiz threaded the Speightstown colt past Gladiator King (8-1) with Admiral Lynch (10-1) another head adrift in third. ... In only his third race since a runner-up finish in last year’s Pat Day Mile, New York Central (2-1) made a strong rally along the rail on the way to a 1¾-length win in the $150,000 Grade 3 Maryland Sprint Stakes. Working for trainer Steve Asmussen, jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. pushed the 4-year-old sired by Tapit to a track-record time of 1:08.74 for the six furlongs on the dirt. ... Never hurried by jockey Joel Rosario, Mitchell Road (2-1) posted honest fractions in her graded-stakes debut and went unchallenged at every call to win the $150,000 Grade 3 Gallorette Stakes for fillies and mares around 1 1/16 miles on the turf. Trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott, the 4-year-old sired by English Channel finished 2¼ lengths ahead of Thewayiam (6-1) and 2¾ better than Viva Vegas (7-1) for her fourth consecutive win.
The chief operating officer of The Stronach Group expressed confidence that the Breeders’ Cup this fall will stay at Santa Anita Park despite the deaths of 24 racehorses there since late December. In a six-minute Q&A on Saturday with about 30 reporters, Tim Ritvo said, “We feel (Santa Anita) is one of the safest racetracks in America with (new medication and veterinary) protocols in place and as cautious as we are. The Breeders’ Cup is really comfortable with the things that we’ve done.” After six weeks without any fatalities, Commander Coil suffered a shoulder injury in training Friday morning that led to his being euthanized. “There was a lot of news coverage there this morning,” said Ritvo, who is also in charge of Pimlico. “But we had 240 horses work this morning without incident again. We’re on top of it. It is critical to us. We understand the position that we are in and the industry is in, and we take everything very seriously.”
More Ritvo: He repeated The Stronach Group’s belief that a lawsuit brought by the City of Baltimore to keep the Preakness here at Pimlico “has no merit.” TSG wants to move the race to Laurel Park, especially as Pimlico continues to rot. “It’s getting tougher every year to give the experience that the customer deserves for an event like this,” Ritvo said. “It’s just old for a structure.” Despite Ritvo’s contention that his company spends “millions of dollars every year on the facility,” his critics contend that TSG has contributed to the erosion of Pimlico by ignoring it while funneling racing dates to Laurel.
It was crushing to hear that Daily Racing Form photographer Barbara Livingston lost both her father and stepmother to accidental carbon-monoxide poisoning last week. The Boston Globe reported that James Livingston, 88, and Sherry Penney, 81, died last Friday after they did not realize their new car was still running in the garage of their Sarasota, Fla., house. Both retired, they were accomplished and highly thought of in the New England academic community. James Livingston taught at MIT; Penney was a chancellor and president at the University of Massachusetts. In my opinion the finest active photographer in racing, Barbara Livingston told me the heartbreaking story when I saw here this week at Pimlico. Our sympathies are with our friend and her family – and by “our” I mean everyone I know in the racing media.
Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com and daily through the Preakness Stakes. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted every Friday morning at Apple, Google, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts.