By Allen Markson
War of Will, ridden masterfully by 24-year-old jockey Tyler Gaffalione, surged to victory in a 13-entrant field at the Preakness Stakes that was low on proven contenders.
Casse insisted it wasn’t vindication, stressing instead how grateful he was that his horse had averted a potentially catastrophic fall two weeks earlier when he nearly clipped heels with the veering Maximum Security just ahead in the Kentucky Derby slop.
The race got off to an alarming start, with Bodexpress bucking out of the gate and tossing veteran jockey John Velazquez onto the track. Velazquez was uninjured, and the riderless Bodexpress galloped on, running the full 1 3/16 -mile distance before doubling back and finally being corralled by an outrider. The horse placed last but officially did not finish.
Unlike in the Kentucky Derby, there was no dispute about War of Will’s victory. Nor did any horse break down over the afternoon slate of 14 races. That amounted to a victory for thoroughbred racing, which is two weeks removed from the controversial Derby finish and under scrutiny for the rash of deaths this year at Santa Anita Parkand on Friday at Pimlico, where 3-year-old filly Congrats Gal collapsed after crossing the finish and died of an apparent heart attack. The same day, Santa Anita saw its 24th equine death in the past five months.
Yesterday’s race marked the first time in 23 years that the Kentucky Derby winner didn’t contest the middle jewel of the Triple Crown, stripping the Preakness of its most compelling story line: Would it produce a Triple Crown contender heading into June’s Belmont Stakes?
Country House was installed as the Derby winner when stewards disqualified first-place finisher Maximum Security after concluding in a 22-minute review of the mud-slopped mayhem that the horse had interfered in his charge to the front.
Trainer Bill Mott didn’t enter Country House in the Preakness, citing illness. Maximum Security, whose owner has filed a lawsuit over the disqualification, also skipped the Preakness, as did the third and fourth horses across the line, Code of Honor and Tacitus.
That made Improbable, the fifth-place Derby finisher (credited with fourth), a most improbable favorite for the Preakness, given that he had yet to win in three starts this year. On Saturday, he got visibly agitated in the gate and finished sixth, denying Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert the distinction of becoming the first trainer to win eight Preakness Stakes.
“His only weakness is he gets a little bit fired up,” Baffert said. “When horses do that, it takes a lot of energy out.”
War of Will and Improbable were two of only four Derby horses to enter the Preakness. Nonetheless, a crowd of 131,256 reveled in the sun-streaked afternoon as a succession of bands rocked the infield concert stage. Beer and cocktails flowed freely. For many, the credentials of the 13-horse field scarcely mattered.
As he had in the Derby, War of Will broke from the No. 1 post. Casse spoke with his jockey beforehand about the importance of keeping the horse relaxed before the start, easing him into the pass and them letting him go.
“That was key,” Gaffalione said. “We just followed Warrior’s Charge the whole way around there. He came off the fence going into the turn, and I thought about waiting to go outside him. But he kept going out, out, out. So I took my shot. The horse didn’t hesitate, and he finished the job.”