October 27, 2020

War of Will’s Preakness performance can’t be retrofitted onto Kentucky Derby

Preakness winner War of Will (c) Maryland Jockey Club

The 2019 Triple Crown plot took a satisfying turn in the Preakness (G1) as War of Will gained compensation for his Kentucky Derby (G1) woes. Two weeks after his athleticism averted catastrophe when Maximum Security veered out at Churchill Downs, War of Will was able to employ that talent to free and full effect in the Middle Jewel.

As much as the handsome bay was deserving in his own right, his connections were equally easy to root for in the Derby aftermath. Trainer Mark Casse, jockey Tyler Gaffalione, and owner Gary Barber have handled themselves well – especially considering that Maximum Security’s owner, Gary West, is fighting the disqualification in court, and trying to pin the blame for the far turn incident on War of Will! To his credit, though, West congratulated Casse after the Preakness.

At the same time, War of Will’s Preakness victory does not imply that he was on the verge of a similar performance in the Derby, if only Maximum Security hadn’t fouled him. On the contrary, two key factors were in play at Pimlico that enabled War of Will to deliver his best effort – race fitness and a relaxed attitude early. He had neither en route to his official seventh-place finish in the Derby.

I’d argue that War of Will effectively lost his best chance in the Kentucky Derby all the way back in his final prep, the March 23 Louisiana Derby (G2). Once he had that miscue in the opening strides at Fair Grounds, where he took awkward strides as he tweaked the patella in a hind leg, War of Will was never in contention and checked in ninth. Had that happened in one of the earlier preps, the Lecomte (G3) or Risen Star (G2), he would have had the luxury of another race ahead of the Derby. But he had no such margin for error in the last prep. War of Will understandably switched off into self-preservation mode, so the Louisiana Derby turned into a non-event for him.

Casse, assistant trainer David Carroll, and his team did an excellent job to get him ready for the Kentucky Derby. Indeed, War of Will was touting himself with his strong works. Still, you’d rather be going into the first Saturday in May on the heels of a solid prep run. War of Will hadn’t had a real race since the February 16 Risen Star – not a problem for a garden variety graded stakes, but not exactly the template for Derby success.

Perhaps War of Will could have defied the probabilities. Drawing the dreaded post 1, however, sealed his Derby fate. A deep closer wouldn’t have minded, but a tactical type like War of Will pretty much had his hand forced to go forward.

Now we come to the second major factor, namely that War of Will was too keyed up in the early stages of the Derby. Although the War Front colt is a keen traveler who’s been known to take a strong hold, he was overeager even by his own standards. A Derby runner can’t fritter away that much energy and have enough left to persist as a win threat down the stretch.

War of Will’s tiring late in the Derby is exactly what you’d expect in the circumstances. A three-year-old coming off a six-week break, with a serious reservation about how much he got out of that last race, pulls hard in his first try in a 1 1/4-mile classic, then hangs tough for a long time before running out of steam.

That’s why it’s so difficult to quantify how much Maximum Security’s interference on the far turn cost him. War of Will shrugged it off with amazing alacrity and kept battling. To me, the foul would have taken more out of him if he’d lost position and mounted a herculean effort to make up appreciable ground. But War of Will was so agile that he was right back in the hunt, with the length of the stretch ahead of him. That’s not to say the recovery didn’t take some extra effort, but the totality of evidence suggests it wouldn’t account for the 4 1/2-length margin of his loss.

As I wrote in an early preview of the Preakness, the Derby shaped as a tightener for War of Will:

Thus War of Will’s pattern of races – but not his overall profile – reminds me of Bravazo last year. Bravazo also won the Risen Star, got nothing out of a bizarre trip in the Louisiana Derby, ran a sneakily-good sixth behind Justify in the Churchill slop, moved forward a light year at Pimlico, and almost upset the Triple Crown winner. War of Will has the same entitlement to improve off the Derby, along with the advantage of being a naturally more brilliant performer than Bravazo.

Race sharpness was just the first half of the equation; the other was whether War of Will would be more tractable early. Although he drew the rail again at Pimlico, there isn’t the same imperative to hustle from post 1 as at Churchill, where the brunt of the field is coming over and you have to gun it or else get pummeled senseless.

Team Casse, knowing that War of Will couldn’t afford to pull as hard as he did in the Derby, took proactive measures. The colt was given a different, lower-key warm-up for the Preakness. Moreover, as Casse told Zoe Cadman afterward, the Derby slop may have exacerbated his keenness, so a fast surface helped, and Gaffalione used a different, shorter hold.

War of Will responded by harnessing his energy more effectively in the race itself, into the bit but in more controlled fashion. Gaffalione stuck to the rail this time (he would have needed a crystal ball to do the same in the Derby), and War of Will shot through.

Back to his best, War of Will might well have turned the tables on Maximum Security at Pimlico, especially on a two-week turnaround that figured to suit him better. Yet it’s unknowable how Maximum Security would have coped with the fresh variables in play. The constellation of circumstances was different in the first two jewels, making extrapolations hypothetical either way.

Unfortunately, settling the issue on the racetrack won’t happen until the July 20 Haskell Invitational (G1) – if then. The Monmouth feature is Maximum Security’s summer goal, while War of Will remains on the classic trail for the Belmont (G1), with his second half agenda to be determined.

West, on Preakness Eve, dangled a $20 million challenge (collectively) to the connections of War of Will; the two others trespassed against in the Derby, Bodexpress and Long Range Toddy; and promoted winner Country House. If any of those horses finishes in front of Maximum Security in a race before the end of 2019, West will pay the owner(s) $5 million. But to accept the challenge, the other four owners must agree to pay $5 million if Maximum Security beats them. While such a massive “side bet” would be a publicity machine, the biggest bragging right of all is the divisional title, and the Eclipse is very much up for grabs.

Thus the War of Will/Maximum Security grudge match is just the beginning. Factor in a few other high-profile Preakness absentees like Country House, who always had late developer written all over him; his Bill Mott stablemate Tacitus, long regarded as the better classic prospect; champion two-year-old male Game Winner, who’s run awfully well in defeat this season; and of course, scratched Derby favorite Omaha Beach, who remains on the easy list after his throat procedure. Just as War of Will had his star turn at Pimlico, so could any of them regain the spotlight.

A few final Preakness postscripts: The Brad Cox duo of Owendale and Warrior’s Charge turned in mighty third- and fourth-place efforts. Wide-rallying Owendale would have been no worse than second had he received the favorable inside trip of runner-up Everfast, whose flying finish was the biggest surprise of the race. (Well, with the possible exception of Bodexpress running around riderless to become an instant cult hero). Front-running Warrior’s Charge boxed on valiantly after a punishing pace burned off his nearest pursuers, and he might have held on a fair bit longer if gadfly Market King hadn’t been there.

Improbable disappointed again, and his meltdown in the gate underscored he’s just not in the right frame of mind. Blinkers-on was a turnoff for Bourbon War, who spent time with head cocked as though trying to get his bearings. Given his turf-friendly pedigree, and that of Improbable, I wouldn’t mind seeing them experiment with a surface switch at some point. The grass is surely greener for Anothertwistafate, not just based on his synthetic prowess, but as a Scat Daddy from a Juddmonte family.

Those postscripts tie in with the larger theme of how individual race circumstances are playing a significant role in a tightly bunched sophomore class, with War of Will as Exhibit A.