At the press conference after War Of Will’s Preakness Stakes win Saturday, trainer Mark Casse answered all the questions – even one from an infield lax bro who clearly wasn’t with the media – but also made sure to make a point about someone who wasn’t there.
“A very important person that’s not here today is David Carroll,” Casse said. “David Carroll is my main guy, and he had (War Of Will) all winter longer. He wasn’t here today and I’m sorry about that because he deserves much of the credit.”
Carroll, back home in Kentucky minding Casse horses at Keeneland, didn’t hear that. He’d have loved it, but he also probably would have told Casse to knock it off and get back to talking about War Of Will. The Irishman, who galloped Easy Goer for Shug McGaughey, is all about War Of Will.
“I’m so proud of him,” Carroll said of the 3-year-old War Front colt. “He’s been through a lot and anyone who has been around the horse just believes in him. He’s that kind of horse.”
I texted Carroll at 8:08 Saturday night, told him congratulations, asked him if he’d give me a call to talk about the Preakness win. He called me back three minutes later and we talked for nine minutes. I leaned on the white fence next to the Pimlico Race Course stakes barn and scribbled notes. Written all over the past performances for the 14th race, the notes are a mess, but the conversation was as clear as a new window. Carroll was humble and happy, funny and philosophical.
Funny how things happen. Carroll trained for 25 years – from two starts in 1992 to 18 in 2016. In between, he topped 100 starts 17 times, won 461 races and more than $17 million in purses. Acoma won seven graded stakes, including the Grade 1 Spinster, for Carroll. In 2008, the Carroll-trained Denis Of Cork finished third in the Kentucky Derby and second in the Belmont Stakes.
Carroll wasn’t Todd Pletcher, but was good at his job and successful. Until he decided he wouldn’t do it anymore, taking a job as Casse’s assistant trainer in 2016. Carroll gave up his training business, for the most part because business wasn’t as good as it was. The work didn’t change, but the numbers weren’t there and the big horses were going elsewhere. Carroll’s horses won 26 races and earned $1.7 million in 2008, but struggled to approach either number thereafter.
“It was the hardest and the easiest thing to do,” Carroll said of quitting training. “I’d worked really hard at it and was proud of the job I’d done. But when you give up something you’ve done for that long and worked so hard for, you have to get comfortable with yourself. You have to get comfortable in your own skin to make a change like that.”
Carroll stopped worrying about workers’ compensation insurance, invoices, payroll and all the rest. He got comfortable and became part of a team.
“Financially, it was easy to do,” he said. “I got a great offer, a great opportunity to join a team. I get to train horses without the outside noise. Each year it gets easier. I had to get to know Mark. He had to get to know me. It’s a great thing to be a part of.”
The far-flung Casse barn stretches to several corners of racing – Florida, Kentucky, New York, Canada – and runs horses all over the country. On Preakness Day, Casse horses started at four tracks. Monday, he won stakes at Woodbine and Presque Isle Downs while pushing his daily winning streak to five consecutive days. Carroll’s role is essentially the same as it ever was, even if his name isn’t in the program.
The Irishman, whose wife Kim also works for Casse, met War Of Will last fall.
“He came to me at Keeneland after he ran at Woodbine to get ready for the Bourbon (Stakes) on the turf,” Carroll said. “Mark told me he was a beautiful horse and I saw him get off the van and Mark was right, but it’s only when you’re around him training that you come to appreciate how nice a horse he is.”
With a turf pedigree, War Of Will finished third in his debut on the grass at Woodbine in August, then placed second in the Grade 1 Summer Stakes at the Canadian track. In the Grade 3 Bourbon Oct. 7, War Of Will started as the favorite and finished fourth before a fifth on soft turf in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf at Churchill Downs Nov. 2. Despite the turf form, War Of Will impressed Carroll on the dirt.
“Any time we would breeze him on the dirt it was unreal,” Carroll said. “He breezed so well on it, it made you think about other things. At the Breeders’ Cup, the turf was soft and beat up and he ran all right, just all right.”
Winless in four turf starts, War Of Will earned an end-of-the-season dirt start and “won for fun” in the slop at Churchill Downs in late November. Sent to Fair Grounds with Carroll in advance of a 3-year-old campaign, War Of Will won the Grade 3 LeComte in January and Grade 2 Risen Star in February to leap into the Kentucky Derby picture. Then he flopped in the Louisiana Derby, finishing ninth as the 4-5 favorite. Casse thought it was a muscle strain, then a stifle issue. Regardless, a few strides out of the gate War Of Will briefly lost his action behind and was never in contention.
“He had a great winter,” Carroll said, “and on the biggest day we had he didn’t get to run his race in the Louisiana Derby.”
War Of Will got healthy but – for another reason – didn’t get to run his race in the Kentucky Derby either. Maximum Security ducked out at the five-sixteenths pole, made contact with War Of Will and created interference for Bodexpress and Long Range Toddy. War Of Will wound up eighth and was one of the four Derby starters to tackle the Preakness, which he won for the whole team.
“What happened in the Derby happened,” Carroll said. “Mark handled everything with class, and so did this horse. To see the horse come back and do that, we’re floating. It’s cloud-nine stuff.”
He’d have probably kept talking for an hour, but had to cut things short for a call – from Casse. They’d spoken for “two seconds” earlier, amidst the chaos.
I told Carroll to go, that I was happy for him. He thanked me for calling.