Down in New Orleans the horse they call “Wow” is simmering along the Road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve like a fine batch of jambalaya.
Off a four-length romp in the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes on Jan. 19 at Fair Grounds, Gary Barber’s War of Will came back Feb. 16 and blew away his competition in the Grade 2, $400,000 Risen Star Stakes presented by Lamarque Ford .
While the final margin was not as great in Saturday’s 1 1/16-mile test as it was in the Lecomte at a mile and 70 yards, the War Front colt still proved best with a 2 1/4-length score. And as trainer Mark Casse was quick to point out, each race leading up to the Kentucky Derby offers a valuable learning experience.
ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY LEADERBOARD
“As I said to Gary Barber when we drew the outside post [13 in a field of 14], all this stuff is going to help down the road,” Casse said. “You know, the Kentucky Derby, I’ve been to a few of them, and you’d better have some seasoning. He needs to get the experience.”
With jockey Tyler Gaffalione aboard to curb the big colt’s early enthusiasm, War of Will used his early speed to get over from the outside, then settled off the pace set by Gun It, a $2.6 million yearling buy and the most expensive Triple Crown nominee of 2019.
“He gets out of the gate well, he puts himself where he needs to be, and the rest is about getting him to relax,” Gaffalione said.
While Gun It set opening fractions of :23.71 and :47.36, Gaffalione had his feet on the dash early to coax War of Will to bide his time from the four path. Three wide early on the far turn, the eventual winner engaged Gun It and obtained the advantage as three-quarters went in 1:12.20. He moved clear approaching the quarter pole.
While Country House made a green bid into second through a 1:37.87 mile, War of Will held safe under a steady hand ride. He finished in 1:44.59 on a track rated fast. Roiland completed the trifecta, 1 1/2 lengths behind Country House.
“He’s very professional. He does everything the right way,” Gaffalione said of the winner. “I’m really looking forward to him next time out.”
That next time will come March 23 in the $1 million TwinSpires.com Louisiana Derby. There, War of Will would stretch out to 1 1/8 miles and make his final start before a Kentucky Derby bid. The Risen Star score gave him 50 qualifying points toward a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate, which combined with his 10 Lecomte points gave him 60 overall. He will exit the weekend as the No. 1-ranked horse on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard.
War of Will has record of three wins, one second, and one third from seven starts, with earnings of $491,569. He was bred in Kentucky by Flaxman Holdings out of the stakes-winning Sadler’s Wells mare Visions of Clarity, a half-sister to multiple Group 1 winner Spinning World, a son of Nureyev who took the 1997 Breeders’ Cup Mile. Visions of Clarity also produced Irish Group 1 winner Pathfork, stakes winner Tacticus, and stakes-placed Market Outlook.
Justin Casse picked up War of Will for $298,550 from Oak Tree Farm’s consignment to the Arqana May 2-Year-Old Breeze-Up Sale in 2018.
War of Will performed well in top company on the grass after running third in maiden company Aug. 24 at Woodbine, with a second in the Grade 1 Summer Stakes in September at the Toronto track, a fourth in the Grade 3 Dixiana Bourbon Stakes in October at Keeneland, and a fifth in the Nov. 2 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf at Churchill Downs. But it wasn’t until the move to dirt that he broke his maiden, collected his first graded stakes score in the Lecomte, and aced the comeback question Saturday by winning his first Grade 2.
And don’t think Casse will do anything to halt the hype where his latest star is concerned. He’s not only on the bandwagon, he’s driving it.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to train some pretty good horses, and he’s one of the best,” he said. “I have the utmost confidence in him.”