The security guard was just doing her job, and roused several dozen owners, trainers and horsepeople assembled on the Pimlico Race Course turf course as the clock ticked toward post time for Saturday’s Preakness Stakes.
“You can’t be here,” she hollered. She got looks – from owner Sol Kumin, trainer Mike Trombetta, an NBC camera crew, even a handful of Maryland Jockey Club employees. Only one person spoke.
“I am not moving,” said Mark Casse.
And who could blame him. For two weeks, the trainer of War Of Will had been boondoggled into a debate over the disqualification of Maximum Security in the Kentucky Derby. The time between the first jewel of the Triple Crown and the second turned toward reality television with claims of interference, bad calls, good calls, appeals, fairness (or unfairness), tactics, suspensions, jockeys, match races and blame, blame, blame when in reality the only conclusion Casse – and most anyone else – could come to about War Of Will was he didn’t do anything wrong.
Casse didn’t yield to Saturday’s pressure, which faded once Pimlico’s paddock judge Mario Verge explained the situation to the guard, and held off the rest of it too – mostly – while concentrating on how his horse came out of the Derby and how he might be coming into the Preakness.
“I just felt like there was so much written, so much said that our horse never had a – he wasn’t going to win, he wasn’t going to do this, and I felt bad,” Casse said. “I just wanted a fair shot. That’s all I wanted.”
Breaking from post one in a field of 13, Gary Barber’s bay colt channeled his trainer and stayed calm in a difficult situation – rallying up the rail from a stalking spot in fourth to win the $1.5 million Grade 1 by 1 1/4 lengths. Longshot Everfast rallied from deep in the 13-horse field to be second with Owendale a nose back in third after 1 3/16 miles in 1:54.34. Ridden by Tyler Gaffalione, War Of Will won for the fourth time in 10 starts while handing Casse his first American classic and shutting down some doubters. Hard.
“It didn’t start until about Tuesday, and Tuesday there was a remark that somebody made that it was Tyler’s fault,” Casse said in the post-race press conference. “That got me pretty fired up. And then I read where they were blaming War Of Will. I then became not so – not quite as nice, and I was irritated. I said other words that I later regretted because they put them in the headlines. But irritated is a nice word.”
By about 7:02 Saturday, he was anything but irritated – the trainer of a Preakness winner even if the first four across the line in the Derby (Maximum Security, Country House, Code Of Honor and Game Winner) stayed home.
“I’ve been following horse racing since I was like 5, so 50-some years,” Casse said, “and the Preakness has always been so big to me. This is the Preakness. We just won the Preakness. I don’t care who was in it.”
The Preakness unfolded similarly to the Kentucky Derby for War Of Will, who drew the 1 post for both races. He tracked the pace of Maximum Security in the Derby before being impeded in what’s become one of the most controversial incidents in recent racing history. Casse calls that moment just that, “the incident,” and it resulted in the first disqualification of a Derby winner for a foul during the race.
War Of Will found himself in a similar spot in the Preakness, tracking the pace set by Warrior’s Charge with Anothertwistafate and Market King close behind through opening fractions of :22.50 and :46.16.
The similarities were easy to spot.
Other subtle changes – which War Of Will’s connections conceded might have made the difference – came in how the colt was ridden.
Casse called Gaffalione Friday to discuss strategy for War Of Will, the 4-1 second choice in the field of 13 on the morning line and third choice behind 5-2 Improbable and 5-1 Bourbon War at post time.
“It was more about the warm-up,” Casse said of the conversation. “I thought maybe we got him a little too fired up in the Derby, and we had planned on coming away from there. This horse has won from off the pace. So I said to Tyler, I called him yesterday and said, ‘I want to talk to you about this before we get into everything. I just want you to jog him and let him relax (on the track before the race), and if they want to go, let them go.’ ”
Gaffalione sensed the easier warm-up did the trick and War Of Will, a colt bought out of a French 2-year-olds in training sale for Barber by Casse’s brother Justin, relaxed in the early stages of the Preakness and into the backstretch.
The race proved anything but relaxing for track management, horseman and fans watching live or on television.
Bodexpress reared at the start, unseated jockey John Velazquez and ran loose in the back of the field the entire trip. Gaffalione said he didn’t know about that incident until he pulled up and heard from an outrider that there was a loose horse. The jockey did see a difference in War Of Will, who won the Grade 3 LeComte and Grade 2 Risen Star at Fair Grounds before off-the-board efforts in the Louisiana Derby and Kentucky Derby.
“He relaxed more 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.”
About two hours after the race, and after watching War Of Will walk back from the test barn, Casse said another key factor came from the in-race strategy he and Gaffalione discussed during that Friday call.
“Not a lot of people would notice this but Tyler took a different type of hold today,” Casse said back at the barn. “Tyler likes to take a long hold and that’s what he did in the Derby. When he did, it was a struggle for him, and he did a tremendous job, I shouldn’t say struggle, but to slow him down (during the traffic issue with Maximum Security) it was a little harder with a longer hold. So we talked about and he said, ‘I’m going to take a shorter hold right from the start and get him to relax,’ and he did.”
Coming off the final turn Warrior’s Charge came off the rail and War Of Will ran through the hole on the inside.
War Of Will took over inside the final quarter-mile and opened a 1-length lead with a furlong to run. Gaffalione stayed busy to the finish post and they finished 1 1/4 lengths in front of Everfast, who held off a late charge from Owendale by a nose for the runner-up spot. Warrior’s Charge finished another 1 1/4 lengths back in fourth with Laughing Fox fifth, Improbable sixth, Win Win Win seventh, Bourbon War eighth and 6-1 fourth choice Alwaysmining 11th.
War Of Will lifted his career earnings to $1,491,569 with the winner's share.
Casse ducked out of the post-race festivities at the stakes barn to try and watch War Of Will walk back from the test barn. Intercepted first by a TV crew looking for an interview and then by Robert Masterson, who owned the Casse-trained multiple champion Tepin, the trainer eventually caught up with the colt he calls “Wow” both for his initials and his ability to do just that to anyone watching.
“He looks good; very good,” said Casse, before being prompted by a couple reporters to rank him in this year’s 3-year-old class. “I’m not going to go there. I’ll say this, he was the best one today.”