The thing that bothered Mark Casse was the not knowing.
What if Maximum Security had not swerved in front of Casse’s horse, War of Will, at the pivotal moment of the Kentucky Derby? Was a career-defining victory on the table?
Casse stewed on this point in the days after the race, as naysayers decried Maximum Security’s disqualification and said War of Will never had a chance. His mother even called him in tears to make sure he was OK.
Which made it all the sweeter for the 58-year-old trainer when he won the Preakness on Saturday with the very horse who’d been written off.
In another bizarre Triple Crown race unsettled by the trip of a riderless horse, Bodexpress, War of Will fulfilled his promise before a crowd of 131,256 at Pimlico Race Course.
“I just wanted a fair shot,” Casse said, reflecting on the events of two weeks earlier at the Derby. “That’s all I wanted.”
The 1¼-length victory was also the first in a Triple Crown race for both 24-year-old jockey Tyler Gaffalione and owner Gary Barber, a South African-born film producer who couldn’t be at the Preakness because he was attending the Cannes Film Festival in France.
Gaffalione said War of Will was unusually relaxed Saturday, following early leader Warrior’s Charge around the track until it was time to make his move along the inside rail. “The horse didn’t hesitate, and he finished the job,” the grinning rider said.
Gaffalione had also faced questions about the chaos at the Derby, with some even blaming him for causing Maximum Security to swerve. Those criticisms particularly irritated Casse.
“I said other words that I later regretted, because they put them in headlines,” he said. “But irritate is a nice word.”
As the 6-1 third choice at post time, War of Will paid $14.20 on a $2 bet to win, $7.40 on a $2 bet to place and $5.40 on a $2 bet to show. Runner-up Everfast paid $32 and $14.40, and third-place finisher Owendale paid $6.
The total betting handle of $99,852,653 was a Preakness record.
Alwaysmining finished a disappointing 11th in his quest to become the first Maryland-bred to win the Preakness since Deputed Testamony in 1983. “I thought he’d run better,” said jockey Daniel Centeno, who’d ridden Alwaysmining through a six-race win streak. “He had a good trip, and we tried to make a move around the turn, but he just stopped.”
Post-time favorite Improbable never made a move on the lead, finishing sixth and leaving trainer Bob Baffert tied with R. Wyndham Walden at a record seven Preakness wins.
The unprecedented Kentucky Derby finish set the stage for a strange run-up to the 144th Preakness. Maximum Security crossed the finish line first in Louisville, only to have his victory taken away by three Kentucky stewards who ruled he had swerved into the paths of other contenders — War of Will among them — as they turned for home. The disqualification left 65-1 long shot Country House as an unlikely and controversial Derby champion.
If Pimlico officials hoped for a Preakness rematch, that possibility quickly went out the window. Instead of making plans for the second leg of the Triple Crown, Maximum Security’s owner, Gary West, filed a lawsuit in hopes of overturning the Derby result. Then Country House’s trainer, Bill Mott, said his horse was sick and would not travel to Baltimore.
Mott’s decision left the Preakness field without the Derby winner for the first time since 1996 and just the fifth time in the past 60 years. Only four Derby horses made their way to Pimlico, led by fourth-place finisher Improbable. But the field ballooned to 13 as trainers saw an opportunity to snatch the $1.65 million race with fresh contenders.
The leading storylines often had little to do with the Preakness itself. The death of a filly named Congrats Gal on Friday’s Black-Eyed Susan undercard revived anxieties about horse safety that have traumatized the racing industry all year. Plumbing failures in the venerable Pimlico grandstand reminded patrons of the eternal debate over how long the track can last as a viable Preakness host.
At least there was no fog or rain to dampen the Preakness atmosphere this year after the race was hardly visible in 2018.
But the race got off to a frightening start when Bodexpress bucked in the starting gate and dumped rider John Velazquez to the dirt. Velazquez was uninjured, but Bodexpress proceeded to run the race by himself, sometimes weaving too close to the pack for comfort.
He wasn’t corralled by outrider Kaymarie Kreidel until after the finish. “He was playing games,” she said. “I was unfortunately the one that ended the game for him.”
Gaffalione didn’t realize a horse was loose until he pulled up after the race. But Casse saw the mishap immediately and was relieved for Velazquez, a good friend. He was asked if he worries about what strange happening might interfere with the next chapter of this Triple Crown series, the June 8 Belmont Stakes.
“I think we’ve covered bizarre already,” he said.
Casse knew War of Will was an unusual horse from early on. Last year, when reporters or fans came to his barn in Toronto for a look at the outstanding filly, Wonder Gadot, he’d point to the 2-year-old colt and say, “Do you want to see a really, really good horse?” He took to calling War of Will by his initials, “WOW.”
The bay colt’s 2019 began in fine fashion with victories in two graded stakes at Fair Grounds Race Course in Louisiana. But War of Will’s path to the Triple Crown series strayed with a ninth-place finish in the Louisiana Derby and reports of minor physical problems. Then came the strange events in Louisville, where Gaffalione almost had to stop him to avoid colliding with Maximum Security.
After the race, Casse felt grateful his horse had not gone down. “I felt joy and relief that he was OK and that we didn’t have the worst disaster in horse racing history,” he said.
He did not contemplate the unfairness of his seventh-place finish until a few days later.
Through all the twists and turns, Casse maintained faith in War of Will’s talent. He’s always been more aggressive than most of his peers about bringing his Derby horses to the Preakness. “Personally, I don’t think it’s done enough,” he said. “I think too many times, trainers are too worried about their win percentages.”
He knew that as long as War of Will seemed healthy, he wanted to take a shot at the Preakness. Casse has revered all of the Triple Crown races since he was 5 years old, so he doesn’t take these chances lightly.
Asked about his plans for the Belmont, he gave no quarter: “I would say if all goes well, you know us. We like to run.”