April 11, 2021

Balan: Mark Casse and War of Will

War of Will at the Breeders' Cup
Horsephotos.com

A year really isn’t that much time. The Earth has been around for about 4.5 billion of them, after all.

But in modern horse racing, a lot can happen in a year.

Twelve months ago trainer Mark Casse had a good-looking bay colt with a white blaze that extended from between his eyes to his nose. He looked like a solid turf prospect, but was still trying to figure things out. A year later, things have changed quite a bit.

The colt named War of Will hadn’t shown a lot of will to win, but showed enough for Casse to put him up against top competition, even after a just OK maiden debut on the grass at Woodbine.

In the 2018 Summer Stakes (G1) he got a perfect stalking trip, cleared in the stretch and looked like an easy winner, but couldn’t hold of Fog of War.

Next came the Bourbon Stakes (G3), and midway through the stretch he looked like a winner again, a length and a half clear of his closest competitor, but when he got hit with the whip for the first time by jockey Drayden Van Dyke, the colt shied a bit, then seemed to lose focus. He was only beaten three-quarters of a length that day, but was the fourth horse to cross the line.

So Casse was sitting at his barn at Churchill Downs in late October with what he felt was a legitimate shot to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1).

“A lot of people don’t know this, but he had trained so well on the dirt, (owner) Gary (Barber) hinted, maybe we run him in the (Breeders’ Cup) Juvenile (on dirt) (G1),” Casse said. “I told him, ‘We can’t do that!’ This horse has a legitimate chance to win the Juvenile Turf, and we’re just going to throw that out and do something we don’t know?”

A severely wide trip cost War of Will any chance to win the Juvenile Turf, but considering the circumstances, he kept trying and finished fifth, and was only beaten 3 1/2 lengths by winner Line of Duty.

“After the Breeders’ Cup and all the trouble, it wasn’t ‘Ah, we should have won’ from Gary,” Casse remembered. “It was, ‘Now we can run on the dirt!’”

So the War Front colt bred top and bottom to relish the grass was put right back out on a racetrack three weeks later, but this time on the stuff he’d been training on. The Churchill main track was sloppy that day, but he won for fun by five lengths in a 1 1/16-mile maiden special weight.

With that the foundation for a classic winner was set.

“If you look at his pedigree, how can you not think turf?” Casse said. “Most of the time the War Fronts do prefer the turf, even though right now he has two outstanding 3-year-old dirt colts (including Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile [G1] favorite Omaha Beach). But then add the Sadler’s Wells on the bottom (the sire of War of Will’s dam, Visions of Clarity) and you think, how in the hell is this a dirt horse?

“Sometimes, over analyzing can hurt us. You know what I mean?”

The rest is pretty well documented—standout wins in the Lecomte Stakes (G3), Risen Star (G2) and then a troubled effort in the Louisiana Derby (G2), all at Fair Grounds—which put him fairly under the radar heading into the Kentucky Derby (G1), when he became one of the most famous horses in racing.

War of Will wins the Risen Star at Fair Grounds (c) Hodges Photography/Lou Hodges Jr.

Regardless of where you stand on Maximum Security’s disqualification in the Derby, the horse who took the brunt of the chaos was War of Will, whose front leg made contact with Maximum Security’s hind leg in the turn for home at Churchill.

A start later War of Will became more than just an answer to a trivia question—who did Maximum Security foul in the Kentucky Derby?—when he squirted up the rail and took the Preakness Stakes (G1).

War of Will and jockey Tyler Gaffalione win the 144th Preakness Stakes (G1) at Pimlico on May 18, 2019
War of Will wins the Preakness Stakes (c) Horsephotos.com/Cecilia Gustavsson

But since his trip to Baltimore, things haven’t gone so well. War of Will threw in a clunker in the Belmont Stakes (G1), finished fifth in the Jim Dandy (G2) and came in third in the Pennsylvania Derby (G1).

But late in the race at Parx, there was a sign of encouragement. Although War of Will looked to be losing touch with frontrunner Mr. Money at the quarter pole, the same colt who once wandered or lost focus at times dug in. After he appeared ready to pack it in at the top of the lane, War of Will kept trying and finished third, beaten just 1 1/4 lengths by impossible longshot Mr. Money.

“The Pennsylvania Derby was a little disappointing, but also satisfying,” Casse said. “We would have liked to have won, but I was proud of him, because he kept running.”

That brings us to the eve of Breeders’ Cup Saturday, and Casse has his colt in the biggest race of the weekend—the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1). While the other War Front, Omaha Beach, will run as a considerable favorite in the Dirt Mile, Casse and Barber are taking their shot.

“Gary and I, we talk about a lot of things,” the trainer said. “If (War of Will) doesn’t run in his best race, he’s going to get beat in the (Dirt) Mile and he’s going to get beat in the Classic. There’s a big difference (in purse) and for stallion (value).

“I’ve been saying, ‘go big or go home,’ and that’s really the final decision. If he comes with his ‘A’ game, they’ll know it. And if he doesn’t, it doesn’t really matter which race you’re running in.”

War of Will at Breeders' Cup 2019
War of Will at Breeders’ Cup 2019 (Horsephotos.com)

Barber’s influence also changed Casse’s traditional Breeders’ Cup schedule. The owner, who has horses with other trainers in California, felt it was important to get works over the tiring Santa Anita main track.

“Of course we don’t know what’s going to happen on Saturday, but I would say, in War of Will’s case, it was a good move,” Casse said. “I thought he worked well over the track the first time, but the consensus is he worked even better the second time. His half-mile breeze the other day—I don’t know if you could ask a horse to go any better than that. … Right now I would say Gary was right.”

It helps that Barber was right about War of Will’s dirt prospects, but Casse also doesn’t buy into the idea that only trainers have good ideas when managing horses.

“Too many times trainers don’t give the owners enough credit,” he said. “My wife said it the best, it’s our job to give them the beacons. It’s their plane, and they get to fly it.”

War of Will at the Breeders' Cup
War of Will prepares for the Breeders’ Cup (Horsephotos.com)

Jockey Joe Talamo, who was up for both of War of Will’s works at Santa Anita, was struck with the grace of the colt’s movement.

“When I got on him the first time–he moves so fluidly. Don’t know how fast you’re going because he does it so easy,” the rider said. “It’s just class. You know getting on good horses and getting on not-so-good horses.”

Casse said the 20-1 morning-line odds for War of Will in the Classic are fair, and he still isn’t the biggest fan of running 3-year-olds against older horses, but in terms of readiness, he’s happy to take his shot.

“As a trainer the only thing you can do is try and hope to have them at the top of their game,” he said. “The rest is up to them, and all you want in the race is a clean trip. No matter what happens, then the rest is OK. I feel like he’s here, he’s had a hard campaign, but he’s ready. Where does that put him? We’ll find that out Saturday evening.”