John Clay

Belmont Stakes next for War of Will, but will Derby winner(s) join him?

How did Mark Casse celebrate winning the Preakness?

Mark Casse, trainer of Preakness winner War of Will, talks Sunday, May 19, 2019 about how he celebrated the win and a congratulatory e-mail he received after the race. Casse said he plans to run War of Will in the Belmont Stakes on June 8.
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Mark Casse, trainer of Preakness winner War of Will, talks Sunday, May 19, 2019 about how he celebrated the win and a congratulatory e-mail he received after the race. Casse said he plans to run War of Will in the Belmont Stakes on June 8.

Of the 450 or so messages trainer Mark Casse received after War of Will won the 144th Preakness Stakes on Saturday, one might have been a bit unexpected.

“I got a very nice email from Gary West,” Casse reported.

West is the owner of Maximum Security, the 3-year-colt who hit the finish line first in the Kentucky Derby only to be disqualified for impeding the path of first War of Will. The aftermath of the DQ deteriorated into a war of words between West, who accused War of Will of being the instigator, and Casse, who fired back in defense of his horse and jockey, Tyler Gaffalione.

Both Maximum Security and Country House, the declared Kentucky Derby winner, skipped the middle jewel of the Triple Crown, but that made no difference to the 58-year-old Casse, whose son of War Front had followed a three-race win streak with a streak of bad luck, starting with a muscle strain that led to a ninth-place finish in the Louisiana Derby followed by the bumper-car Derby in which War of Will ended up seventh.

“I just wanted to win the Preakness,” Casse said early Sunday morning — 6 a.m. early — outside the Stakes Barn at Pimlico, where the blanket of black-eyed susans was draped over the fence outside of War of Will’s stall.

Now Casse wants to win the Belmont Stakes. War of Will is scheduled to van Monday back to Keeneland, where he will be under the care of Casse assistant David Carroll. If everything goes as planned, the colt would remain in Lexington for about 10 days before continuing on to New York.

“There are only three Triple Crown races and they’re pretty important,” said Casse, who picked up his first classic win on Saturday. “I think if you can do it, you should do it.”

Whether the main players in the Derby drama will join him in the Big Apple is an open question. Stabled at Monmouth Park, Maximum Security just returned to training for Jason Servis, who has said the Belmont is under consideration. Country House, who developed a cough after the Derby, has returned to Churchill Downs after a stint at Rood & Riddle, the veterinary hospital in Lexington, but trainer Bill Mott has said his horse isn’t likely to make it to New York for the June 8 race.

War of Will himself was a little foot sore after the Derby, Casse said. And he has stringhalt, a condition which according to TheHorse.com causes “horses to yank their legs up and halt them momentarily before taking their next step,” which has convinced the equine experts on social media the horse is lame. “They’ve been doing that for six months,” said Casse.

He looked perfectly fine Saturday while ignoring the Pimlico chaos, both normal and not-so-normal — while literally leaping out of the starting gate, Bodexpress tossed rider John Velazquez, then continued around the track with the pack as if he was going to win the race all by himself — War of Will benefited from a fast pace, then took advantage of an opening on the rail to claim the Woodlawn Vase.

Among Casse’s multitude of congratulatory texts, emails and phone calls were a few from Gary Barber, the movie producer and owner of War of Will, who was in France on Saturday at the Cannes Film Festival. In fact, as the media was chatting with Casse on Sunday, Barber called Casse again from France, where it was around noon.

“I’ve got about 20 reporters around me and they wanted me to put you on speakerphone,” Casse told Barber with a laugh. “I told them I’m not going to do that. … And we’re going to the Belmont? I’m kidding. I was making that up.”

Casse’s not kidding. As the sun came up at Pimlico, he was reminiscing about his days as a kid in Ocala, Fla., where his father ran Cardinal Hill Farm, waiting for the Daily Racing Form to arrive at the farm so he could read it.

“As far as the Belmont, the Belmont is the Belmont, the third leg of the Triple Crown,” Casse said. “Who doesn’t want to win it?”

Trainer Mark Casse talks about War of Will's victory in the 144th Preakness Stakes on Saturday, May 18, 2019, at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. War of Will finished seventh after being fouled in the Kentucky Derby.

Belmont Stakes

Saturday, June 8, at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y.

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