BALTIMORE — War of Will grinded out the Kentucky Derby in the slop, avoided clipping heels with Maximum Security and came out of the race looking as if he won.
The morning after a frustrating race in the mud that left him eighth at the finish line, the charismatic bay colt was unscathed, healthy and surprisingly frisky.
“The only thing he wanted to do was eat mints and jump on top of me,” trainer Mark Casse said.
That’s the War of Will those around him have grown to know over the past year. Assistant trainer Jamie Begg told Casse a year ago the horse was special, and after gutting out the Kentucky Derby , War of Will looks primed to show what he can do in the Preakness on Saturday.
Beyond his initials, there’s a reason his nickname is “Wow.”
“He can do anything — he’s like Superman,” jockey Tyler Gaffalione said. “He just amazes me more and more every time I get on him.”
War of Will won two stakes races over the winter but amazed the most in the Derby when he pulled up just enough to escape a potentially catastrophic fall around the final turn. Already spent from running a bit too eagerly the first half of the race, Casse was surprised War of Will still had energy down the stretch.
Had Maximum Security not impeded around the final turn leading to his disqualification , Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey believes War of Will would’ve finished fourth or better, even after struggling to get position.
“He was pulling and fighting,” said Bailey, now an analyst for NBC Sports. “He was all geared up and no place to go and he remained that way for a big portion of the race. That was a pretty good effort.”
War of Will has shown to be equal parts “Superman” athlete and tough-as-nails grinder. He bounced back from a problem in the Louisiana Derby that left him out of contention and has rebounded similarly from what happened in Kentucky on May 4.
“He’s a tough horse,” Casse said Wednesday. “His energy level’s very good, he’s moving well. And that’s what we’re looking for. I had said all along that if I didn’t see that, he wouldn’t run. Right now, all systems are go.”
Systems were never stopped for War of Will, who seems to know how good-looking he is when he’s being admired on the track or at the barn. Gaffalione gushes about War of Will’s demeanor and spent a half-hour just hanging out with him last week after riding other horses all day.
“He’s just a pleasure to be around,” said Gaffalione, who will ride War of Will for a sixth consecutive race in the Preakness. “He’s so unique and has such a strong personality. He just puts a smile on your face.”
War of Will would put smiles on a lot of faces at Casse Racing if he gives the group its first Triple Crown victory. It would mark another milestone for Casse, who won his first Breeders’ Cup race in 2015 with filly Tepin.
As great as Tepin was, War of Will trumps her in how easy he makes running look.
“She would just get it done,” Casse said. “She wasn’t real fluid on the track. She would trip, nearly fall, give me a heart attack half the time. But him, he just skips along. He doesn’t get tired. He has extremely quick turn of foot when you ask it.”
Casse describes War of Will as effortless and believes he’ll be a tough competitor in the Preakness along with favored Improbable in the 13-horse field. Gaffalione can feel that while riding War of Will, who impressed him from their first workout together.
“His stride, he just covers so much ground,” Gaffalione said. “Even when he runs in the afternoon, he just kind of floats around there.”
War of Will again drew the No. 1 post that caused him such stress in the Derby, but Gaffalione doesn’t think it’s as big a deal in the Preakness. Bailey is picking him to win and the optimism is flowing.
“I have all the faith in him,” Gaffalione said. “Given the opportunity, he’s definitely capable.”
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