Mark Casse's Belmont Diary: War of Will Validated, Ready for Saturday

Trainer Mark Casse, pictured leading the horse, will race Preakness winner War of Will in Saturday's Belmont Stakes.
Trainer Mark Casse, pictured leading the horse, will race Preakness winner War of Will in Saturday's Belmont Stakes. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Trainer Mark Casse, inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 2016, broke through with his first victory in a Triple Crown race when War of Will rebounded from a star-crossed trip in the Kentucky Derby to win the Preakness Stakes.

Casse grew up in racing. His father, Norman, ran Cardinal Hill Farm in Ocala, Fla., and was one of the founders of the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company. Mark obtained his trainer’s license when he was 17. He was responsible for developing Tepin, the Eclipse Award winner as champion turf mare in 2015 who captured the Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot the following year.

His operation also produced Wonder Gadot, a victor last year in the Queen’s Plate and Prince of Wales Stakes. War of Will, a War Front colt known as WOW around the barn, will try to add the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets to his resume next Saturday at Belmont Park.

Casse agreed to share his insight in the days leading up to the mile-and-a-half “Test of the Champion” with followers of America’s Best Racing. Here is the first installment of his diary, as told to Tom Pedulla.

When I was asked immediately after the Preakness where that victory ranked, I told reporters during the post-race press conference, “It’s right up there.”

Now that I have had time to let everything sink in, I have to say it was the most satisfying victory of my career. Although War of Will never got a chance to show what he could do when he was interfered with by Maximum Security in the Kentucky Derby, it was still up to him to prove himself in the Preakness. Without a doubt, he proved he belongs with the best 3-year-olds in the country.

I am so happy for Gary Barber, his owner. Gary has put so much into this game and is a great owner to work with, always supportive and willing to test his horses in big races when they are doing well and showing they deserve a shot.

War of Will first gave us a hint of what he could do last June at Belmont Park. That is where we gave him his first breeze. One of my assistants, Jamie Begg, was on hand for that and really liked what he saw. “I think this horse is special,” he told me when we were going over various horses stabled there.

We brought War of Will to Saratoga in mid-July and he continued to impress us. Everything we asked him to do, he did well. There was a great deal of interest in Wonder Gadot at that time because she had already done so much. I was so excited about War of Will that I would make sure anyone wanting to look at Wonder Gadot also got to see him. I’d bring him out of his stall and tell visitors, “If you want to see a really nice horse, this is it. We call him ‘WOW.’"

War of Will validated what we felt about him all along in the Preakness. He got a perfect ride from Tyler Gaffalione, who showed a great deal of patience during that race. Tyler may be 24, but he acts as if he has been in the game much longer than that. This was his first Triple Crown race win. It definitely will not be his last. The sky is the limit for him. We are fortunate to have him.

Gaffalione celebrates aboard War of Will.
Gaffalione celebrates aboard War of Will. (Eclipse Sportswire)

War of Will came out of the Preakness on the tired side, which was to be expected. The Kentucky Derby also took something out of him, and the two weeks between the Derby and Preakness is not an easy turnaround for any horse. He was not back to himself until three or four days before the Preakness.

We sent him to Keeneland after the Preakness, where he gradually came around for David Carroll, my assistant there who has done a great job with this horse. We were going to give War of Will one breeze before the Belmont. When I viewed the pluses and minuses of doing that, I changed my mind. His energy level is back to where we want it, and there is no question about his fitness.

It is asking a lot of any horse to start him in all three legs of the Triple Crown. It looks as though WOW will be the only one to do that this year. Some fans may wonder why we are dancing every dance since no Triple Crown is on the line. The answer is simple.

There is only one Belmont, he’s ready, and we’re going to try to win it.

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