Closer Look at Preakness Victor War of Will, Looking Ahead to Belmont

Preakness Stakes winner War of Will is headed to the Belmont Stakes next.
Preakness Stakes winner War of Will is headed to the Belmont Stakes next. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Making the Grade, which will run through the 2019 Belmont Stakes, focuses on the winners or top performers of the key races, usually from the previous weekend, who could impact the Triple Crown. We’ll be taking a close look at impressive winners and evaluating their chances to win classic races based upon ability, running style, connections (owner, trainer, jockey), and pedigree.

This week we take a closer look at War of Will, winner of the Grade 1, $1.65 million Preakness Stakes May 18 at Pimlico Race Course.

War of Will

Bay Colt

Sire (Father): War Front

Dam (Mother): Visions of Clarity, by Sadler’s Wells

Owner: Gary Barber

Breeder: Flaxman Holdings (Ky.)

Trainer: Mark Casse

There were legitimate concerns about War of Will’s chances on the Triple Crown trail after a head-scratching ninth-place finish in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby, in which it looked like his hind end gave out on him early in the race and he displayed little of his usual tenacity. Trainer Mark Casse said before the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve that the Louisiana Derby mishap was caused by War of Will’s patella briefly popping out of its track. A few days after the Louisiana Derby, War of Will was back to his usual self and trained very well leading up to the 2019 classics, highlighted by his victory in the Preakness Stakes May 18.

Ability: It’s easy to understand why War of Will began his career on the grass. He was purchased at a 2-year-olds in training auction in France and his sire, War Front, is responsible for many notable elite turf runners.

Trainer Mark Casse’s youngest brother, Justin, picked out War of Will at that Arqana Breeze-Up sale for $298,550 and he finished third on turf on Aug. 24, 2018, at Woodbine in his career debut for owner Gary Barber.

From there, he was thrown into the fire against graded stakes competition and showed promise when finishing second in the Grade 1 Sumer Stakes in September at Woodbine, fourth by less than a length in the Grade 3 Dixiana Bourbon Stakes at Keeneland in October, and fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf in November at Churchill Downs.

With 99, 98, and 98 Equibase Speed Figures, respectively, in three important graded stakes on grass for 2-year-olds and results that indicated he was talented enough to compete with top turf horses, keeping War of Will on the grass would have been a reasonable option.

Instead, the colt switched to the main track and earned his first career win in his final start at 2 when he won a 1 1/16-mile maiden race by five lengths on a sloppy track at Churchill Downs Nov. 24.

He followed with a visually impressive four-length runaway victory in the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds Jan. 19 in his 3-year-old debut that stamped War of Will a serious player on the Kentucky Derby trail.

Mark Casse said after the Lecomte: “I’ll give it to Gary Barber. He was like, ‘We have to try the dirt.’ Every time we worked him, everybody was like, ‘This is a good dirt horse.’ I thought his earlier win at Churchill Downs was so impressive. He’s got a tremendous cruising speed. … I have just the utmost respect for this horse. I think he has the potential to be an absolute superstar.”

In the Lecomte, War of Will overcame a wide trip, flashed his high cruising speed, and showed the ability to respond on cue with terrific acceleration. He posted a career-best 107 Equibase Speed Figure, a new top 94 Beyer Speed Figure, and equaled his career best with a 94 BRISnet speed rating.

War of Will in the Preakness winner's circle.
War of Will in the Preakness winner's circle. (Eclipse Sportswire)

When War of Will followed with another facile win under regular rider Tyler Gaffalione in the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes presented by Lamarque Ford, he became one of the 2019 Kentucky Derby favorites.

There were some concerns, however, when the speed figures came back relatively soft. He earned a 97 Equibase Speed Figure, a 10-point drop, and his 90 Beyer Speed Figure was a four-point drop. His TimeFormUS rating of 110 matched his Lecomte rating while War of Will’s BRISnet number increased two points to a 96.

It wasn’t necessarily a red flag, but at that time of year it is important to see continued improvement and development. While he showed the latter in the Risen Star, again imposing his will on the opposition, he did not get faster.

After that, the wheels fells off in the Louisiana Derby when War of Will looked like he lost his action in his hind end shortly after the start and for the first time in his career did not fire. War of Will just kind of loped around the track and never threatened while ninth, beaten by 12 lengths. Suddenly, he went from logical top Derby contender to the biggest question mark in the field entering the first jewel of the Triple Crown.

The six weeks between the Louisiana Derby and Kentucky Derby were key for War of Will. According to Casse, War of Will was quickly back to being himself and after his final workout for the Kentucky Derby — an impressive half-mile workout in :47.60 on April 27 — he became a buzz horse leading into the 1 ¼-mile race.

“If you weren't impressed with him this morning, I don't know what we're supposed to do.” Casse told BloodHorse. “He loves it here, and he's on top of his game. [Gaffalione] said he couldn't pull him up, said he was going down the backside a-blazing.”

War of Will drew the dreaded inside post for the Kentucky Derby, but Gaffalione used some of his speed early for tactical position and had him in an ideal spot when he made his move on the far turn. By now you almost certainly know what happened next: Front-running Maximum Security ducked out four to five lanes into War of Will’s path, setting off a chain reaction of bumping that affected multiple horses, including War of Will who was checked sharply. Maximum Security went on to finish first while others impacted by the trouble — War of Will, Bodexpress, and Long Range Toddy — faded. War of Will wound up eighth but was elevated to seventh after Maximum Security’s controversial disqualification.

After the Derby, the controversy surrounding the DQ took on a life of its own but War of Will had a chance for redemption in the Preakness Stakes and he capitalized.

War of Will stalked the pace from fourth under Gaffalione and appeared much more comfortable in the early stages of the Preakness than he had in the Derby. When Gaffalione asked War of Will to shift gears leaving the far turn, the War Front colt did so effortlessly, seized command from the inside, and opened a clear lead in early stretch en route to a 1 ¼-length Preakness victory. War of Will finished very well with a final three-sixteenths of a mile in 18.86 seconds.

The 1:54.34 final time for the Preakness was the fastest since two-time Horse of the Year Curlin in 2007. War of Will earned a new career-best 99 Beyer Speed Figure, a career-best 122 TimeForm US rating, equaled his career-top 107 Equibase Speed Figure, and was a point off his top BRISnet rating with a 95.

Casse is planning to send War of Will on to the 1 ½-mile Belmont on June 8. He probably will be a slight favorite over Kentucky Derby third-place finisher Tacitus in the Belmont.

Running style: War of Will seems to have settled in as a stalker who is at his best when rating just behind the speed horses and making his bid on the final turn or entering the stretch. That running style proved effective for him in the Preakness and he has enough tactical speed to press the pace if it is slow, which he showed in the Lecomte and Risen Star.

Connections: War of Will gave owner Gary Barber, trainer Mark Casse, and jockey Tyler Gaffalione their first career victories in a U.S. Triple Crown race.

Barber enjoyed a terrific year in 2018 that was highlighted by Wonder Gadot, who twice defeated males to win Canadian classic races and also ran second in the Longines Kentucky Oaks. Barber is a former executive of Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer and is currently chairman and CEO of Spyglass Media Group. Spyglass Entertainment, which Barber co-founded, has produced such motion pictures as “Seabiscuit,” “Memoirs of a Geisha,” “The Insider,” and “The Sixth Sense.” Barber has served as executive producer of more than 50 films, including “Seabiscuit.”

Barber raced in partnership 2016 Breeders' Cup Mile winner Tourist and 2015 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf winner Catch a Glimpse.

War of Will with Gaffalione and Casse after the Preakness.
War of Will with Gaffalione and Casse after the Preakness. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Casse finished second in the Preakness in 2017 with Classic Empire, who also gave him his best Kentucky Derby finish from six runners when fourth in 2017. Casse has won 10 Sovereign Awards as Canada’s top trainer and was inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 2016.

A five-time Breeders’ Cup winner, Casse has won 2,695 races through May 20, including 153 graded/group stakes, since he took out his trainer’s license in 1979.

Gaffalione was the 2015 Eclipse Award winner as outstanding apprentice jockey and has amassed 1,086 victories through May 20, including 84 stakes wins and 23 graded stakes. He earned his first Grade 1 win in 2018 for Casse aboard Salty.

Pedigree: Based upon pedigree, it’s easy to see why his connections first assumed he’d be best suited to grass. War of Will is by leading commercial sire War Front, who has sired 50 group/graded stakes winners including Hong Kong champion Lines of Battle and Group/Grade 1 winners Declaration of War, U S Navy Flag, Air Force Blue, Lancaster Bomber, Warning Flag, Homesman, Roly Poly, Avenge, Jack Milton, Data Link, Hit It a Bomb, War Command, Summer Soiree, American Patriot, and War Flag. Most of his success has come with turf horses, specifically in Europe. This year, however, War Front’s Grade 1 winner Omaha Beach was the morning-line favorite for the Kentucky Derby before he was scratched with a breathing issue, and War of Will subsequently won the Preakness Stakes.

War Front had previously shown versatility with dirt Grade 1 winners The Factor and Peace and War, as well as West Virginia Derby and Super Derby winner Departing and 2011 Fountain of Youth Stakes winner Soldat.

War of Will’s dam (mother), Visions of Clarity, by breed-shaping sire Sadler’s Wells, was a stakes winner at one mile. In addition to War of Will, she also has produced Group 1 winner Pathfork and multiple stakes winner Tacticus. Visions of Clarity is a half-sibling to 1997 Breeders’ Cup Mile winner and sire Spinning World, a classic winner in Ireland.

War of Will’s grandam (maternal grandmother), Imperfect Circle, was a stakes-winning sprinter and Group 1-placed at three-quarters of a mile. Third dam (maternal great-grandmother), Aviance, was a Group 1-winning sprinter and elite producer whose Group 1-winning daughter Chimes of Freedom produced 2003 champion sprinter Aldebaran and Grade 1 winner Good Journey.

Class should not be a factor, but stamina could be as we stretch out to 1 ½ miles for the Belmont Stakes. Most of this family’s top runners were sprinters/milers, while War Front found most of his success sprinting but did win a stakes race at 1 1/16 miles.

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