The following appeared in Bloodhorse.com and was written by Claire Crosby.
When the horse they call “WOW” flashed beneath the finish line May 18 in the $1.5 million Preakness Stakes (G1) at old Pimlico Race Course, the racing world was thrilled by the scintillating turn of events on a Triple Crown trail that has been both riotous and bizarre—and yet the result was oddly logical.
Of course War of Will won it.
War of Will, b, 3/c
War Front — Visions of Clarity (IRE), by Sadler’s Wells
Owner: Gary Barber
Breeder: Flaxman Holdings Limited (KY)
Trainer: Mark E. Casse
Jockey: Tyler Gaffalione
Information provided by Equibase at time of entry.
War Front stands at Claiborne Farm for $250,000 (2019).
ARQMAY2018 • $298,550 • Consignor: Oak Tree Farm • Buyer: Justin Casse.
KEESEP2017 • ($175,000 RNA) • Consignor: Lane’s End, agent.
The War Front colt carried to victory young Tyler Gaffalione, who at age 24 found himself in the heated spotlight just two weeks earlier when his same mount was impeded by Maximum Security in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1). He also carried the silks of Gary Barber, a sportsman whose statement in the wake of the Derby fiasco staunchly defended both Gaffalione and his horse from accusations leveled by Gary West, Maximum Security’s owner. And he galloped to the wire powered by conditioning not only from trainer Mark Casse but from a tight-knit support team whose countless hours of dedication paid off in one perfect, brilliant moment.
While the Kentucky Derby featured bumper-car action on the final turn—with first-place finisher Maximum Security disqualified to 17th and War of Will elevated from eighth to seventh when Country House was named the winner—the Preakness didn’t make viewers wait for such drama.
As soon as the gates flew open, 20-1 shot Bodexpress reared and bucked. Exiting a 13th-place finish in the Derby, the Gustavo Delgado trainee tossed jockey John Velazquez before he even had a chance to race a step, then sprinted loose on the outside all the way around the racetrack, with suspense mounting as he stayed in stride with the other 12 horses in the field.
The racing world heaved a sigh of relief when, after crossing the finish line as part of the group in the 1 3/16-mile test, Bodexpress was apprehended by the outrider—but only after he turned back to head the wrong way down the stretch. Velazquez emerged from the incident unscathed.
The loose horse was far enough to the outside to avoid Gaffalione’s detection during the race.
“To be honest, I didn’t know until we pulled up,” he said.
Throughout the race, the young rider was in the zone. After breaking from the one hole, the same post he drew in the Kentucky Derby, Gaffalione sat chilly on War of Will as the colt came nicely to hand while saving ground on the first turn. Warrior’s Charge set opening fractions of :22.50 and :46.16, followed by Market King, Anothertwistafate, and the eventual winner.
Although War of Will had been gunned from the inside post in the Derby to avoid getting cut off in the 19-horse melee, and then raced rankly into the clubhouse turn, this time he settled remarkably well.
“He was more relaxed than usual today,” Gaffalione said. “That was the key. We warmed him up to do so. Mark said, ‘Just jog him today, let him walk, try and keep him as calm as possible,’ and it worked out.”
Warrior’s Charge had a one-length lead through three-quarters in 1:10.56, but as he hit the top of the stretch, he drifted out and began to fade. The golden path opened for War of Will on the rail, exactly where he’d raced all the way around the wide dirt strip in Baltimore. This time, the colt got the clean trip he’d been looking for.
“We just followed Warrior’s Charge the whole way around there,” Gaffalione said. “He came off the fence going into the turn, and I thought about waiting to go outside him, but he kept going out, out, out. So I took my shot and went through there. The horse didn’t hesitate, and he finished the job.”
Cementing his status in history with every beat of his pounding heart, War of Will took command leaving the three-sixteenths after a 1:35.48 mile and edged away under brisk urging to a 1 1/4-length victory. The final time on a fast track was 1:54.34.
Calumet Farm’s Everfast, a 29-1 shot boldly entered by trainer Dale Romans, closed from 11th to finish second by a nose over Owendale, who also rallied after racing ninth early. Warrior’s Charge held for fourth. The order of finish was completed by Laughing Fox, 5-2 favorite Improbable, Win Win Win, Bourbon War, Signalman, Anothertwistafate, Alwaysmining, and Market King.
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 (G1T). Visions of Clarity also produced Irish group 1 winner Pathfork, stakes winner Tacticus, and stakes-placed Market Outlook. She foaled a Tapit colt in 2017 and was bred to American Pharoah for 2019.
Justin Casse, Mark Casse’s brother, 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. The colt was a $175,000 RNA when consigned by Lane’s End to the 2017 Keeneland September Yearling Sale. He performed well in top company on the lawn after running third in maiden company Aug. 24 at Woodbine, with a second in the Sept. 16 Summer Stakes (G1T) at the Toronto track, a fourth in the Oct. 7 Dixiana Bourbon Stakes (G3T) at Keeneland, and a fifth in the Nov. 2 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1T) at Churchill Downs.
But it wasn’t until the move to dirt that he broke his maiden and collected his first graded stakes score in the Lecomte Stakes (G3) at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots. Traveling the Road to the Kentucky Derby through New Orleans, he impressed in the Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford (G2) and recovered from a stumble and ninth-place finish in the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby (G2) to make his Run for the Roses.
Before War of Will ran in the Kentucky Derby, Casse said the colt’s relatively unscathed emergence from the Louisiana Derby was “a small miracle.” After the Kentucky Derby, he was still amazed by the fact his horse did not go down in the chaos.
“I felt joy and relief that he was OK and that we didn’t have the worst disaster in horse racing history,” he said. “I would like to think, if it wasn’t for the incident, it would have been an interesting race down the lane.
“This is the life we live with each and every day. We always have curveballs thrown at us on a consistent basis.”
War of Will rewarded his owner, trainer, and jockey with their first Triple Crown race scores, although Barber, the former chairman/CEO of MGM, was not in attendance due to commitments at the Cannes Film Festival. He improved his record to 4-1-1 from 10 starts, with earnings of $1,491,569. He was sent off as the 6-1 third choice Saturday and returned $14.20 on a $2 win ticket. An all-time total handle record of $99,852,653 was set on the race, eclipsing the previous mark of $97,168,658 set in 2017. Reported attendance was 131,256.
With Maximum Security bypassing the Preakness, Casse said he wasn’t out for revenge after the Kentucky Derby debacle—he was just looking for a chance to prove his horse’s talent to the world.
“I just wanted a fair shot. That’s all I wanted,” he said. “I wanted him to get his chance to show everyone how good he is, because he is a superhorse. You know, we were coming back in two weeks, and there were a lot of fresh shooters. So I am extremely proud. But a lot of people said, ‘Oh, is this revenge?’ No, I just wanted to win.”
Still, a challenge looms. While War of Will is slated to ship back to Keeneland and the care of assistant trainer David Carroll, who played a key role in his development over the winter at Fair Grounds, the gauntlet has already been thrown down by West.
One day before the Preakness, West challenged the four Kentucky Derby contenders who were involved in the incident to race against his colt again, offering $5 million to the horse who can beat him. Included in this proposition was the suggestion of a $5 million return from the owner of any of the quartet of horses who loses to Maximum Security.
Although Casse hinted his Preakness winner could be bound for New York and the June 8 Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G1) at Belmont Park—and Maximum Security is considered on track for a start in the July 20 betfair.com Haskell Invitational Stakes (G1) at Monmouth Park in New Jersey—the trainer also added, “Gary Barber is a sportsman, and I’m sure they’ll meet again one day, but only under the right circumstances for the benefit of racing.”
Still, with the results of this Triple Crown season serving as a fresh reminder, what will really happen in the sport of horse racing is always anyone’s guess. For now, it is left only to debate among ourselves: Who’s the best 3-year-old in the country? Is it Maximum Security? Country House? Some late bloomer who has yet to shine?
Is it War of Will?
On Saturday, Casse answered that question—at least for now.
“Today, War of Will was,” he said.