Mark Casse slumped in his seat and put his head in his hands after hearing the words “one” and “War Of Will” come from the mouths of Ben Huffman and Dan Bork during Tuesday morning’s post-position draw for the 145the running of the Kentucky Derby.
The gloom-and-doom moment lasted just that, a moment, before Casse shared some give-and-take with fellow trainer and one of the biggest post-position worriers in the game (even though he won't admit it), Bob Baffert.
“You know why they have the intermission?” Baffert joked to Casse. “So you can go into the bathroom and throw up.”
After Santa Anita Derby winner Roadster, one of three entrants in Saturday’s Derby for Baffert, drew post 17 Casse couldn’t resist and followed up on emcee Travis Stone’s mention of that post’s futility.
“After he drew the 17 and Travis said it’s 0-for-41, actually it’s only 0-for-38, I said, ‘now you can go puke,’ ” Casse said. Truth be told, post 17 is 0-for-40 going into Saturday’s race and the scratch of Omaha Beach means Improbable moves in a spot to 16 with Long Range Toddy now in 17.
War Of Will can’t move any further inside - although he does come over a spot with the scratch of Haikal Friday morning - and he’ll start from a spot dreaded by just about everyone leading up to the Derby.
Post 1 hasn’t produced a winner since Ferdinand and Bill Shoemaker won from the rail in 1986. Ferdinand topped a field of 16 that day and if all the remaining entrants stay in the field for Saturday’s race, War Of Will and jockey Tyler Gaffalione will have to defeat 18 others.
“I’m going to give you my analogy of this entire thing,” Casse said outside his barn Wednesday, after giving the realization he drew post 1 about 24 hours to digest. “I always say you can look at things two ways. When you hit a ball into the woods you can say, ‘damn, I hit the ball in the woods,’ or you can say ‘what kind of great shot can you hit to get out of it?’ ”
Casse figures Gaffalione and War Of Will would need to break well, obviously considering the immediate inside paths almost run directly into the end of the bend in the rail at the top of the stretch. The scratch of Haikal, who suffered a foot abscess and didn’t train for back-to-back days, will move the now 19-horse field out a spot for War Of Will will leave the gate from the second stall.
“Well, it’s a shorter trip,” Casse said, continuing to not let the draw bring down his mood. “If the track plays any way it has the last few years, especially when it gets wet, there’s been a humongous inside bias. We’ll take it.”
War Of Will also needs to bounce back from a subpar effort in his final Kentucky Derby prep in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby March 23 at Fair Grounds. The son of War Front went into that race as the pro-tem leader of the 3-year-old division and many experts’ Derby pick.
He’d won the Grade 3 Lecomte and Grade 2 Risen Star, both at Fair Grounds, in dominating style and went to the post at 4-5 for the Louisiana Derby.
War Of Will broke well in the Louisiana Derby then took a few bad steps, appearing to lose his action behind before he and Gaffalione settled into sixth position past the finish the first time and around the first turn. They didn’t threaten at any point in the race, eventually fading to ninth, beaten 12 lengths by By My Standards, in the worst performance of his eight-race career.
Casse said War Of Will “walked a little funny” for the first 30 minutes back at the barn, almost like he pulled a muscle. He jogged sound about 45 minutes after the race and the next “morning he was 100 percent.”
Casse said War Of Will suffered a bit from stringhault, a neurological issue that can cause gait abnormalities.
“He’s always had it, from the Breeders’ Cup. We didn’t see any difference that way,” he said. “I don’t know if it was a Charlie Horse. I’m sure all of us, I know I have, played a lot of sports and you pull a muscle and do something, it will hurt like hell and then it will go away.
“Horses have (stringhalt), they do a funny motion with their hind leg. … It’s a proven fact it causes no lameness. It’s unique though when you watch him walk.”
Not taking anything to chance, Casse sent War Of Will to Kentucky for a full evaluation, X-rays and other tests, which didn’t reveal any serious issues. The colt trained with Casse’s main string and lead assistant David Carroll at Keeneland between the Fair Grounds race and a little more than a week out from the Kentucky Derby.
War Of Will breezed three times at Keeneland, including a bullet 5-furlong gate work in :59 April 13 and another bullet 5 furlongs in 1:00.20 April 19. War Of Will’s final serious workout before the Derby came at Churchill and he earned black letters for that move, too, a half in :47.60 last Saturday.
“In all honesty and you hear all these different things, ‘oh it’s perfect, just what I wanted,’ all that baloney, but if you told me six weeks ago after the Louisiana Derby we’d be where we are today and be in the shape we’re in I’d have been,” Casse said. “It’s been wonderful. He has done things perfectly. We’ve been able to prepare him exactly the way we wanted to. Now it’s up to him.”
Notes: So who are those eight winners from post 1? The first was eventual Triple Crown winner War Admiral in 1937. The others are Lawrin (1938), Gallahadion (1940), Triple Crown winner Citation (1948), Hill Gail (1952), Needles (1956), Chateaugay (1963) and Ferdinand. … Casse won his 10th Sovereign Award for Canada’s outstanding trainer last month. He’s started six horses in the Kentucky Derby, with the best finish a fourth by champion Classic Empire in 2017. Casse’s other starters were Seaside Retreat (10th in 2006), Prospective (18th in 2012), Danzig Moon (fifth in 2015), State Of Honor (19th in 2017) and Flameaway (13th in 2018).