They call him “Wow” around Mark Casse’s shedrow, a strong colt brimming with the kind of potential that keeps a trainer up at night, worrying.
His pedigree screams of turf greatness, but his workouts on dirt and a strong Nov. 24 main-track maiden score hinted at versatility.
Now, after a powerful performance in the $200,000 Lecomte Stakes Jan. 19 at Fair Grounds, War of Will seems bound for races reserved for the best of his generation — a path that leads to destiny on the first Saturday in May.
With Tyler Gaffalione along for the ride Saturday, the War Front colt turned his first strides on the Road to the Kentucky Derby into a four-length romp that announced his raw talent to the world.
ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY LEADERBOARD
Already seasoned after four starts on the grass and his five-length maiden win at Churchill Downs, War of Will had Casse praising the instincts of owner Gary Barber after he sailed to victory in the one-mile and 70-yard race.
“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.”
Gaffalione coaxed War of Will into that high cruising speed in the Lecomte, easing his eager mount into a stalking third outside as longshot Malpais put up an opening quarter in :24.33 and eventual third-place finisher Manny Wah poked a head in front for a :49.22 half. But as three-quarters went in 1:14.63, War of Will’s natural speed already started to carry him past his competition like the 8-5 favorite he was.
“I was just worried about moving too soon,” Gaffalione said. “He was carrying me so well, and I was trying to wait as long as I could, but when I unleashed him, he really turned it on.
“He’s something special. You just put him wherever, and he handles the rest.”
Despite running four wide on the first turn and five wide on the second, War of Will had plenty of run left as he was set down for the drive from the four path. He kicked into high gear through a 1:39.50 mile en route to a final time of 1:43.44 on a fast track and galloped out with relish. Hog Creek Hustle closed to get second, and Manny Wah rounded out the trifecta two lengths back.
War of Will 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 last year.
He 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 at the Toronto track, a fourth in the Grade 3 Dixiana Bourbon Stakes 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 and on Saturday collected his first graded stakes score.
According to his trainer, the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes going 1 1/16 miles on Feb. 16 at Fair Grounds is a probable next target for War of Will, who picked up 10 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve leaderboard and improved his record to two wins, one second, and one third from six starts, with earnings of $251,569.
“I’ll talk to Gary, but it would make the most sense. That’s why we’re here,” Casse said. “We love this place, and it’s a great place to get a horse ready. I don’t know that there would be a real reason to leave.
“This was about a month ago, but I had some friends over and I said, ‘We have a big chance to win the Derby this year.’ I don’t usually say things like that, so that tells you what I think of him. We’ve been thinking about the Kentucky Derby for a long time, and now we’ll be thinking about it even more.”