Horse Racing

Kentucky Derby notebook: Trainer for gifted War of Will not sweating No. 1 post

Mark Casse, trainer of War of Will, expects his horse to handle the No. 1 post for the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on Saturday.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Mark Casse swears he never lost faith in War of Will’s Kentucky Derby prospects, not after a startling ninth-place finish in the Louisiana Derby and not as the colt dealt with nagging health troubles in the ensuing days.

“I told [owner] Gary Barber a day or two after, I said, ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to get there,’ ” the trainer recalled.


Even the news that his horse had drawn the dreaded No. 1 post for Saturday’s race did not sway Casse’s faith.

“Unfortunately, the one post I didn’t want was the one I got,” he said Thursday. “But I’ve been watching a lot of races from the No. 1 hole in the Derby, and maybe it’s not that bad.”


Casse noted that the win percentage for horses that start on the rail is actually good. War of Will’s break from the starting gate will be essential. If he avoids being trapped, he’ll likely be on or near the lead early in the race. After 50 yards, Casse will have a good sense of his fate.

War of Will trains on the track during morning workouts in preparation for the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on Saturday.

“This is my 40th year,” he said. “I’ve seen it all and nothing surprises me. It’s the old saying of you play the hand you’re dealt. We have our plan.”

War of Will enabled Casse to remain calm with a sensational breeze Saturday over the dirt at Churchill Downs. His workouts, combined with his victories in two graded stakes earlier this year, make him a popular potential bet at 15-1 odds in the morning line. It doesn’t hurt that he works with none of the tempestuous personality that Casse’s gifted contender, Classic Empire, flashed in 2017.

“I know what he’s made of,” Casse said. “Everybody else got to see a little glimpse of it when he breezed. Everybody was like, ‘Whoa!’ And I said, ‘You got to see a little bit of what I’ve been seeing for a long time.”

Smith available

Mike Smith was perhaps the most coveted jockey for this year’s Derby after he rode Justify to the Triple Crown last year.

He could have ridden Roadster for Bob Baffert, the trainer with whom he’s most associated. Instead, he chose Omaha Beach, the morning-line favorite he’d ridden to a commanding victory in the Arkansas Derby.

But when Omaha Beach had to be scratched Wednesday because of an entrapped epiglottis, the 53-year-old jockey suddenly found himself looking for a ride as he seeks his third Derby win.

Which trainer would pull the trigger on a last-minute jockey switch? That question generated buzz all over the backside at Churchill Downs on Thursday morning.


Baffert said it would not be him, despite his affinity for Smith. When his favorite jockey chose Omaha Beach, Baffert picked Florent Geroux to take over Roadster. He said he would stick with that plan.

“I never thought of that,” he said when asked about a jockey switch.

Baffert said he called Geroux, just to reassure him there would be no change. “He says, ‘Are you taking me off boss,’ ” Baffert recalled with a grin. “And I go, ‘No, I’m all in, Flo.’ So we laughed. It’s one of those things where I would never do that to the riders.”

Two-time Derby-winning trainer Todd Pletcher, meanwhile, did not completely squash the idea that Smith might replace Corey Lanerie aboard Cutting Humor.

“We haven’t really discussed that yet,” Pletcher said Thursday morning. “Mike Smith’s open, so you have to think some people are thinking about that.”

He said he couldn’t add anything until he spoke with Cutting Humor’s owner, Jack Wolf of Starlight Racing, who has a longstanding relationship with Smith.


Haikal also in doubt

The morning after Omaha Beach was scratched from the Derby Field, the status of another contender, Haikal, was also murky.

The Kiaran McLaughlin-trained colt missed training on Thursday because of an abscess on his left front foot, and a decision on his fate is due by 9 a.m. Friday.

“We’re soaking it and hoping for the best,” McLaughlin told reporters, adding that he expected his horse to train on Friday. Haikal is a 30-1 shot in the morning line after he won the March 9 Gotham Stakes and finished third in the April 6 Wood Memorial.

If he is scratched, the field would drop from 20 to 19 horses and the remaining contenders who drew posts inside of Haikal’s No. 11 would each move one spot off the rail.