Mark Casse said all winter that people would be talking about the colt he trains, War of Will, after the Kentucky Derby.
Casse was right, but not in way he meant and hoped.
War of Will has become the most famous eighth-place Derby finisher during the two weeks between Derby and Preakness.
Casse, owner Gary Barber, and jockey Tyler Gaffalione dreamed of War of Will draped with a blanket of Derby roses. Instead, the Derby first-place finisher Maximum Security was draped all over War of Will at the five-sixteenths pole.
War of Will might’ve been qualified to win the Derby but wound up central to the most infamous disqualification in Derby history, the only time a winner was taken down for committing an in-running foul.
Maximum Security and jockey Luis Saez came off their line and out into War of Will’s path while leading as the front group of Derby horses bent out of the far turn. For two strides – replayed endlessly, Zapruder-like, in days to come – Maximum Security’s body came literally up underneath War of Will’s left-front leg, which pushed into Maximum Security’s rump, perhaps, even, helping propel him to victory. Harness-racing drivers sometimes will butt a leg into a horse’s hindquarters to urge them along as fatigue sets in.
War of Will would gather himself again, take a run at Maximum Security, fade late, and finish eighth, beaten 4 1/2 lengths. Gaffalione conferred with Casse after returning his mount to be unsaddled, and the two decided not to lodge an objection. In any case, Jon Court on 17th-place finisher Long Range Toddy, who was involved in the far-turn scrum, and Flavien Prat, who finished second on Country House, already had formally objected. Country House was racing outside War of Will, Long Range Toddy, and Bodexpress when Maximum Security came out, and he appeared to suffer no interference. But Churchill stewards – as everyone now knows – decided a foul had been committed and disqualified Maximum Security to 17th.
That pushed War of Will into seventh – and his trainer and jockey straight into the limelight.
Gaffalione (who declined through his agent to be interviewed for this story) especially became a target for those who felt Maximum Security had been wronged. On social and traditional media, they claimed Gaffalione had put War of Will in the wrong spot by bulling his way off the inside past the three-furlong pole. And here is where Casse called bull.
“I heard it said that Tyler should have went inside,” Casse said. “That’s where I got upset. Nobody took a bigger beating than we did . . . I didn’t start until some people started taking shots at my horse and my jockey.”
Casse at one point compared the path Maximum Security was taking around the turn to a drunk driver unable to stay in his lane. In the social-media swamp, that got twisted to suggest Casse claimed Saez was riding as though he were drunk, or even actually drunk. And since the stewards never lit the inquiry sign, Casse also had to answer for the decision not to lodge an objection. What was the point, Casse said afterward, when even a disqualification would only elevate his horse to seventh?
“Even our Triple Crown winners, I don’t know if they got this much attention,” Casse said. “I have friends that know nothing about racing, that watch one day a year, and they’re already waiting to watch the next race.”
The next race – the Preakness. That comes Saturday, and War of Will is one of just four Derby runners along with Improbable, fifth across the line; Win Win Win, 10th; and Bodexpress, 14th. War of Will runs despite having a sore right-front hoof three days after the Derby.
“Tuesday morning, he had a fair amount of heat in his foot, and his foot had a pulse,” Casse said on a May 10 conference call. “We pulled his shoe, soaked his foot, put his shoe back on, and he hasn’t missed a beat. That’s not an issue.”
If so, War of Will is not just a horse steeped in Derby controversy but a Preakness horse with a real chance.
In fact, the Derby foul was only the last in a series of unfortunate events that befell the colt this spring. War of Will was purchased at a 2-year-old auction in France, of all places, and made a mark during 2018 as a talented turf horse, but it wasn’t until Casse switched him to dirt for a Churchill maiden race late last November that War of Will won. Casse sent him to Fair Grounds to winter with the string he keeps there headed by assistant David Carroll, and War of Will scored dominant wins in the Lecomte Stakes on Jan. 19 and in the Risen Star Stakes on Feb. 14, where he comfortably beat runner-up Country House.
The odds-on favorite in the $1 million Louisiana Derby on March 23, War of Will lost his action a few strides into the race, bobbling noticeably as his hind end gave way while he attempted to push into a stride. War of Will never got involved, finishing ninth, and came back to the barn lame, Casse said, with a pulled muscle.
That condition quickly resolved, however, and by the time War of Will came north to Keeneland he already was edging back onto the Triple Crown trail. Keeneland workouts on April 6, 13, and 19 convinced Casse and Barber to continue to the Derby, and War of Will’s awesome breeze April 27 at Churchill moved him up the Derby pecking order.
“Most people hadn’t got to see him train, but Derby week, everyone got to see what I’ve seen,” Casse said. “He’s a beautiful horse, such a great mover.”
Indeed, War of Will is a locomotive, a massive dark bay colt radiating power, a horse with a strong, fast, rhythmic gallop who got moved to dirt because he wasn’t quite showing the turn of foot required of a top-class grass horse. All of which made the Derby draw in dreaded post 1 so disappointing. And his trip, even before Maximum Security got involved, went about as one might’ve guessed.
Gaffalione sent War of Will to try and make the front, but failing to make the lead found himself bottled up inside and behind horses trying to hold a powder keg.
Gaffalione “had to send him away from there like a guy sends a Quarter Horse, and then he wouldn’t shut off,” Casse said. “He was not comfortable there. I wasn’t happy going down the backside, he was pulling so hard.”
That, as much as the trouble on the far turn, might have sapped War of Will’s Derby finish, and given what happened in the Louisiana Derby, War of Will hadn’t turned in a proper race for about 10 weeks. On the other hand, his Beyer Speed Figures in the Lecome and Risen Star, a 94 and a 90, called into question the real strength of those performances.
Two weeks after the Churchill stewards returned their momentous verdict, the jury is still out on just where War of Will fits in this crop.
His trainer is just happy his horse came back from the Derby with a chance to let us find out.
This story originally appeared on DRF.com.