John Clay

With no one blocking his way this time, War of Will wins the Preakness

The day after the Kentucky Derby, Mark Casse was feeling just fine. Sure, his horse had taken the biggest bump in the near pileup that led to horse racing’s Great DQ Controversy, but War of Will was no worse for wear. He was standing and eating and everything was good. Until certain people opened their mouths.

“About Tuesday someone said something about Tyler (Gaffalione, the jockey) and they tried to blame War of Will for what happened,” said the trainer. “Then I said some things that weren’t so nice that I later regretted because they got put into headlines.”

Then Saturday, at was supposed to be a pointless Preakness Stakes, Casse and Gaffalione wrote their own headlines as War of Will popped through on the rail down the stretch to win the 144th running of the middle jewel of the Triple Crown at Pimlico Race Course.

As a 6-1 shot, the son of War Front paid $14.20, $7.40 and 5.40. Long-shot Everfast, a last-minute entry by trainer Dale Romans, finished second and paid $32.00 and $14.40. Owendale, the winner of Keeneland’s Lexington Stakes last month for trainer Brad Cox, ran third and paid $6.00.

Improbable, the betting favorite at 2-1, finished sixth after acting up in the gate for trainer Bob Baffert. (“That’s tough to overcome,” said Baffert later.) Then Bodexpress acted up leaving the gate, throwing jockey John Velazquez before continuing around the track as if he was bound and determined to win the race. The colt, finally corralled by an outrider well after the race, and Velazquez were both pronounced OK afterward.

Then again, something bizarre always seems to happen at the Preakness. Remember last year’s dense fog? Or maybe it’s just Pimlico, the crumbling facility in the middle of the Battle of Baltimore, with Pimlico’s owner, The Stronach Group, threatening to move the race to nearby Laurel Park while the city has countered with a oh-no-you’re-not lawsuit. Nearly 7,000 grandstand seats were declared unsafe ahead of the race and water pressure was an issue all day Saturday thanks to a water main pipe that burst two days before. By Preakness post time, there was a plane flying overhead with a streamer advertising, “Mahon Plumbing. Your Local Plumber.”

Fact is horse racing has been one big soap opera ever since first-place finisher Maximum Security was disqualified for veering out of his path and impeding War of Will, Long Range Toddy and Bodexpress in the Kentucky Derby’s turn for home. Country House was declared the winner. Maximum Security was placed 17th, and owner Gary West blew his top.

The infuriated West first blamed the stewards, then “greedy” Churchill Downs, then War of Will, saying it was Casse’s horse that actually caused the foul. When Casse heard that, he fired right back saying Maximum Security had impeded War of Will in the Derby not once but twice. Not that the verbal volleys took anything away from War of Will’s Preakness preparation or Casse’s focus, mind you. “You ask my wife,” said the trainer, “I don’t have a problem with focusing.”

And while the general public might have been focused on the absence of an ailing Country House and a pouting Maximum Security from the 13-horse Preakness field — the first time the Derby winner had not run in the race since 1996 — the always party-hearty Pimlico patrons didn’t seem to mind, given the usual rowdy crowd, the constant thud of the bass from the musical acts in the infield, and the announced attendance of 131,256, just 3,000 shy of last year when Justify checked the second box on his Triple Crown run.

Casse said he certainly didn’t mind one bit. Saturday had nothing to do with revenge. After all, the 58-year-old trainer who grew up in Indianapolis said that since he began following horse racing “at about age 5” the Preakness has always been one of his favorite races.

“I just won the Preakness,” he said of the no-shows. “I don’t really care who was in it.”

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