How Far Can War of Will’s Talent Carry Him on Kentucky Derby Trail?

War of Will, with Tyler Gaffalione up, won the Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds on Jan. 19 to earn 10 Kentucky Derby qualifying points. (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 3, $200,000 Lecomte Stakes on Jan. 19 at Fair Grounds.

Based upon pedigree, it made perfect sense to start War of Will’s racing career on the grass, and the bay colt showed flashes of talent from the outset. A switch to the main track seems to have unlocked some hidden potential from this talented 3-year-old and, after a pair of dominant wins on dirt, War of Will has placed himself firmly on the 2019 Triple Crown trail. Let’s take a closer look at his chances.

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

Ability: Justin Casse, the youngest brother of trainer Mark Casse, purchased War of Will for $298,550 at a 2-year-olds in training auction in May 2018 in France. He debuted on the grass for owner Gary Barber and trainer Mark Casse in April 2018 at Woodbine and finished third, after which he was tested against elite competition on turf in the Grade 1 Summer Stakes in September at Woodbine, the Grade 3 Dixiana Bourbon Stakes at Keeneland in October, and then the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf in November at Churchill Downs.

War of Will more than held his own. He finished second in the Summer Stakes and was beaten by less than a length in the Bourbon before running fifth in the Juvenile Turf. War of Will also was consistent on the grass with 99, 98, and 98 Equibase Speed Figures for the three stakes races.

Casse credited owner Barber for pushing him to test War of Will on the dirt, and War of Will dominated in his first try on the main track. He pulled away to win a 1 1/16-mile maiden race on a sloppy track at Churchill Downs by five lengths on Nov. 24.

“I’ll give it to Gary Barber. He was like, ‘We have to try the dirt,’ “ Casse said. “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.”

While his dirt debut was impressive visually, the 90 Equibase Speed Figure was a slight step back and it remained to be seen if his talent would transfer on a dry, fast dirt track against better competition. War of Will was again up to the challenge.

War of Will used the high cruising speed Casse referenced to stalk the pace from third in the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes while racing wide on both turns. Jockey Tyler Gaffalione kept him under a firm hold until the top of the stretch, and when he asked War of Will to accelerate, the response was powerful. He surged clear to win by four lengths while earning a new career-best 107 Equibase Speed Figure and galloped out well clear of the other 11 runners.

It was always evident that War of Will boasted natural talent, but in the Lecomte he really put everything together in a tour de force. He basically looked like a winner from start to finish and leveled off really nicely in the stretch.

My only serious concern about War of Will’s dirt stakes debut is the quality of opposition, but that is almost always the case with Kentucky Derby prep races in December and January. It usually is the next round of Derby preps that sort the true contenders from the pretenders, and right now I’d lean very strongly toward placing War of Will in the former category, although stamina could be a question.

Running style: On both grass and dirt, War of Will has raced on or near the lead early by using his natural speed. He looks like he’s settled in as a stalker who is at his best rating just behind the speed horses and making his bid on the final turn or entering the stretch. Horses with that running style have won each of the last five Kentucky Derbys.

War of Will and Tyler Gaffalione. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Connections: Owner Gary Barber enjoyed a nice season in 2018 highlighted by Wonder Gadot, who twice defeated males to win Canadian classic races and also ran second in the Longines Kentucky Oaks. Barber also won Grade 1s last year in partnership with Channel Maker and Salty.

Gary Barber is chairman and CEO of Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer and co-founder of Spyglass Entertainment, which 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 has also raced Grade 1 winner Jack Milton and in partnership 2016 Breeders' Cup Mile winner Tourist and 2015 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf winner Catch a Glimpse. Other Grade 1 winners Barber has raced in partnership include Cost of Freedom, In Lingerie, Comma to the Top, Haveyougoneaway, Sharla Rae, Gitano Hernando, Becrux, and The Deputy. Barber is unplaced with two Kentucky Derby starters that he raced in partnership: The Deputy, 14th in 2000, and Comma to the Top, 19th in 2011.

Mark Casse has won 10 Sovereign Awards as Canada’s top trainer, including seven straight from 2011 to 2017. He was inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 2016. A five-time Breeders’ Cup winner, 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 2,639 races through Jan. 21, including 148 graded/group stakes, since he took out his trainer’s license in 1979.

Tyler Gaffalione has ridden War of Will in his two races on dirt. Gaffalione was the 2015 Eclipse Award winner as outstanding apprentice jockey and has amassed 1,012 victories through Jan. 21, including 73 stakes wins and 17 graded stakes. He earned his first Grade 1 win in 2018 for Casse aboard the aforementioned Salty. Gaffalione finished 14th on Patch in 2017 in his only previous Kentucky Derby mount.

Pedigree: War of Will’s pedigree appears to lean heavily toward grass, but perhaps more importantly it also reveals an abundance of class while a bit light on stamina.

War of Will is by leading commercial sire War Front, who has sired 45 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, Brave Anna, 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. While most of his success has come with turf horses, specifically in Europe, War Front has shown some 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 Tacticus, who won two stakes races in New York on dirt at distances of 1 ¾ miles and 1 5/8 miles. Visions of Clarity is a three-quarter-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. Most of this family’s top runners, Tacticus aside, 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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