BALTIMORE – All trainer Mark Casse wanted after the controversy-marred Kentucky Derby was a fair shot for his powerful bay colt, War of Will, to show what he could do.
That chance came Saturday in the 144th Preakness Stakes, in which War of Will, ridden masterfully by 24-year-old jockey Tyler Gaffalione, had a smooth trip on the rail to emerge the victor in a 13-horse field that was low on proven contenders.
Casse insisted it wasn't vindication, stressing instead how grateful he was, fully two weeks after the Derby, that his horse averted a potentially catastrophic fall when he nearly clipped heels with the veering Maximum Security just ahead of him in the slop.
“We were this close to never seeing him again,” Casse said, reflecting on the Derby controversy, in which Maximum Security was disqualified, and speaking about his pride in the thoroughbred whose initials spell his nickname, “W-O-W.” War of Will crossed the finish 11/4 lengths ahead of Everfast, who edged Owendale by a nose.
The race got off to an alarming start, with Bodexpress bucking so violently out of the gate that he tossed veteran jockey John Velazquez onto the track. Velazquez was uninjured, and the riderless Bodexpress galloped on, running slightly wide of the other horses the full 13/16-mile distance before being corralled by an outrider after doubling back. Bodexpress placed last but officially did not finish the race.
Saturday'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 reliable and 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 Maximum Security, the first horse over the line, after concluding in a review of the mud-slopped mayhem that the horse had interfered in his charge to the front.
Trainer Bill Mott decided against entering Country Horse in the Preakness, citing illness. Maximum Security, whose owner has sued over the disqualification, also skipped the Preakness, as did the third and fourth horses across the line, Code of Honor and Tactitus.
That made Improbable, the fifth-place Derby finisher (credited with fourth, after the disqualification), a most improbable favorite for the Preakness. He had yet to win in his three previous starts this year. On Saturday, he got visibly agitated in the gate, and Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert realized at once it was a bad sign.
“His only weakness is he gets a little bit fired up,” Baffert said. “When horses do that, it takes a lot of energy out.”
Improbable finished sixth.