BALTIMORE – For all the controversy that surrounded the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago, when his colt War of Will became entangled with Maximum Security 550 yards from the wire, trainer Mark Casse had maintained a zen-like equanimity. He was disappointed that War of Will hadn’t gotten a fair shot at competing, but more than that, Casse was relieved he had a horse who could continue to compete.
“I was just happy I had my horse,” Casse said. “It would have been the biggest black eye in the history of the sport if he falls.”
There was nothing that could trip up War of Will on Saturday in the 144th Preakness Stakes at Pimlico. Again breaking from the inside, as he did in the Derby, he got a terrific, ground-saving ride from Tyler Gaffalione, slipped through inside pacesetter Warrior’s Charge in upper stretch, and went on to win the second leg of the Triple Crown, giving Casse, Gaffalione, and owner Gary Barber their first win in a Triple Crown race.
“I didn’t think he got a fair shot,” Casse said of the Derby. “I wanted a fair shot. He got that today. I wanted him to show how good he is. He didn’t get that chance in the Derby.”
War of Will ($14.20) won the Preakness by 1 1/4 lengths over the 29-1 shot Everfast, who closed to be second and nosed out Owendale. Both the winner and the runner-up took advantage of a main track that appeared to favor inside lanes.
Warrior’s Charge faded to fourth, then came, in order, Laughing Fox, Improbable, Win Win Win, Bourbon War, Signalman, Anothertwistafate, Alwaysmining, and Market King.
Bodexpress reared up as the gate opened and unseated jockey John Velazquez, but he fortunately ran around the track without interfering with the other 12 runners before being caught by an outrider. Velazquez was fine afterward.
War of Will completed 1 3/16 miles on the fast main track in 1:54.34.
This was an unusual Preakness in that neither Country House, winner by disqualification of the Derby two weeks ago, nor Maximum Security, who was disqualified from a Derby victory, were in the race. This was the first time the Derby winner had not raced in the Preakness since 1996. In addition, the first four finishers across the line in the Derby were absent from the Preakness, the first time that had happened since 1951.
Also missing were some seats and basic plumbing. Maintenance has not been a priority at Pimlico in recent years, as it only races a couple of weeks a year, with the rest of the major dates in Maryland assigned to sister track Laurel, where the Maryland Jockey Club would like to relocate the Preakness. Parts of the old grandstand at Pimlico were closed on Saturday, and then the plumbing went out, resulting in toilets that could not be flushed.
The Preakness drew an announced crowd of 131,256. The day’s overall handle was a record $99,852,653, breaking the record of $97,168,658 set in 2017.
The field of 13 marked the largest Preakness field since 14 competed in 2011. Improbable, who had crossed the wire fifth in the Derby before being promoted to fourth, was the lukewarm favorite at 5-2. He was seeking his first win of the year, and became the first horse to go off favored in a Triple Crown race without a calendar-year win since Timber Country in the 1995 Preakness.
Warrior’s Charge, starting from post 3, went straight to the front under Javier Castellano and set fractions of 22.50 seconds for the opening quarter and 46.16 seconds for a half-mile with the longshot Market King in closest attendance, with Anothertwistafate farther out in third.
War of Will, meanwhile, drafted right behind those three while remaining inside. Unlike the Derby, when he was pulling Gaffalione, this time War of Will was more comfortable, which Casse and Gaffalione ascribed to a more serene pre-race warmup.
“I thought maybe he was too fired up in the Derby,” Casse said. “I told Tyler just to jog him, let him relax.”
As the field came around the final bend and into the lane, Warrior’s Charge left a hole along the inside plenty wide for War of Will to get through, and Gaffalione was more than willing to accept the gracious invitation.
“The horse didn’t hesitate,” Gaffalione said.
Owendale loomed a threat a furlong out, but was racing in the middle of the track and couldn’t make enough of an impact late while Everfast, 11th entering the lane, knifed his way inside and got up for the place.
War of Will was one of only four horses who ran in the Derby and then wheeled back in two weeks for the Preakness.
“We’re not afraid to take chances,” said Casse, who brought Shamrock Rose back in two weeks for her upset victory last fall in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint. “Too many times trainers are worried about their win percentage. We’re not afraid to run them.”
War of Will, a son of War Front, has been highly regarded by Casse since last summer, before he ever raced. He began his career on turf, and raced three times in graded stakes while still a maiden, then earned his first win against maidens in his first dirt race last November at Churchill Downs.
He spent the winter at Fair Grounds, where he won the significant Derby preps the Lecomte and Risen Star. Then in the Louisiana Derby, in which he was favored, War of Will took awkward steps in his hind end leaving the gate and finished ninth of 11.
After getting a thorough evaluation by Casse, War of Will went back into training and worked brilliantly prior to the Derby. He was in position to make a move on the far turn when he went between rivals just as Maximum Security ducked out. For two strides, his front legs were dangerously close to the rear legs of Maximum Security. A false move from War of Will or Gaffalione and he could have gone down.
“He had a great trip until what I call ‘the incident’,” Casse said. “If not for the incident I think it would have been an interesting race down the lane.”
War of Will crossed the wire eighth, then was promoted to seventh when Maximum Security was disqualified.
Casse said he “felt joy and relief” that War of Will had emerged from the Derby unscathed, “and that we didn’t have the biggest disaster in horse-racing history.”
Casse has horses in many jurisdictions. War of Will is with his main string, his day-to-day care overseen by assistant David Carroll. “He deserves much of this credit,” Casse said.
War of Will is scheduled to return on Monday to Kentucky, and Carroll’s supervision, with a decision pending on whether to run in the Belmont Stakes, the final leg of the Triple Crown, in three weeks. Casse will make that decision after talking with Barber, the successful movie executive who missed the Preakness because he’s at the Cannes Film Festival.
“If all goes well – you know us, we like to run – we’ll probably be at the Belmont,” Casse said.
Why not? He’s got his horse, right here, and he can do.
This story originally appeared on DRF.com.