Trainer Mark Casse wanted War of Will, a victim of interference in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, to get a fair shot in the $1.5 million Preakness Stakes. He got all of that.
Gifted young jockey Tyler Gaffalione capitalized, breaking from the rail and working out a beautiful ground-saving trip en route to a 1 ¼-length victory over longshot Everfast before 131,256 fans on Saturday at Pimlico Race Course.
Two weeks ago, War of Will appeared to get the worst of it when stewards disqualified Maximum Security from first to 17th in an unprecedented development in the 145-year history of the Run for the Roses. In contrast, the colt that was seemingly star-crossed in the Derby had everything go his way during the 1 3/16-mile Preakness.
“He’s got so much heart. We always knew he had the ability,” said Gaffalione, 24. “We just had to get a little bit lucky, and today was our day.”
It also could have been argued that the Derby was a fortunate day for the son of War Front, who was forced outside and checked at the 5/16th pole. He came perilously close to becoming entangled with Maximum Security with a cavalry of horses behind them in a 19-horse field at Churchill Downs. Luis Saez, who rode Maximum Security, was suspended for 15 days.
Casse never lost sight of the potential catastrophe that was narrowly averted in the days following the controversial finish.
“I was absolutely fine because I thought I was lucky,” Casse said. “I was the luckiest guy and the only one luckier was horse racing because we were this close to never seeing him again.”
It was hotly debated during the two weeks between the Derby and Preakness how much War of Will had left before Gaffalione was forced to check him. As far as Casse was concerned, his horse, placed seventh, was just beginning to strut his stuff for owner Gary Barber.
“We had a great trip until what I call the incident,” he said. “I would like to think if it wasn’t for the incident, it would have been an interesting race down the lane.”
Country House, elevated to first in the Derby, did not go on to the Preakness, the first time the Derby winner was absent from the middle leg since knee chips sidelined Grindstone in 1996. Hall of Famer Bill Mott, who conditions Country House, said his 3-year-old developed a cough shortly after the Derby. The 13-horse Preakness field included nine new shooters, some of them lacking obvious quality.
Casse could have cared less after War of Will – affectionately known as WOW around the barn – presented the trainer and jockey with their first Preakness triumphs.
“This is the Preakness. We just won the Preakness,” Casse said during the post-race news conference. “I really don’t care who was in it.”
Stonestreet Lexington Stakes victor Owendale finished a nose behind Everfast in third. Warrior’s Charge, supplemented for $150,000, faded to fourth. Warrior’s Charge asserted himself early as expected, zipping the opening quarter of a mile in 22.50 seconds and the opening half-mile in 46.16 seconds.
Warrior’s Charge was still in front through three-quarters of a mile in 1:10.56 while Gaffalione, whose father and grandfather were jockeys, coolly bided his time in fourth. When the wilting pacesetter began to drift off the rail, Gaffalione knew what needed to be done. So did his horse.
“I took my shot and went through there,” the precocious young rider said. “The horse didn’t hesitate and he finished the job.”
War of Will powered home the final three-sixteenths of a mile and covered the 1 3/16-mile distance in 1:54.34. He returned $14.20 for a $2 win wager. Casse said the youngster will be shipped to Keeneland to be readied for the 1 ½-mile Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets at Belmont Park.
Casse is regarded as one of the game’s more aggressive trainers when it comes to the frequency with which his horses run and his bold placement of them.
“I would say if all goes well, you know us. We like to run,” he said. “We’ll probably be at the Belmont.”
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert was foiled in his bid to secure a record-breaking eighth Preakness triumph when favored Improbable reared up in the gate for jockey Mike Smith and then lacked punch in running evenly in sixth.
“He was acting pretty well but then he got fired up,” Baffert said of the gate incident. “When horses do that, it takes a lot of energy out.”
Bodexpress dumped jockey John Velazquez at the start. Although Velazquez was uninjured, it added a peculiar twist for the second straight spring classic. Someone wondered what other oddity might await this tightly-bunched 3-year-old division.
“I think we’ve covered bizarre already,” Casse said.