After rough ride in Kentucky Derby, War of Will trainer Mark Casse has moved on to Preakness

BALTIMORE —Mark Casse has been in the horse racing business too long to spend much time reflecting on what just happened rather thinking about what’s on tap.

Two years ago, Casse said he moved on quickly after Classic Empire appeared to be on the verge of victory in the Preakness, only to be chased down and narrowly beaten by Cloud Computing.

It prevented the 58-year-old Casse from his first Triple Crown series win —he has six victories among Canada’s equivalent races —in a career that began at age 15, when he helped train horses at the Florida horse farm owned by his late father, Norman.

“One thing about me, good or bad (result), my memory is pretty short,” Casse said last week. “I tend to look forward and not back. I don’t worry about it much. I just try to do better the next time.”

It might be a little more difficult for Casse this week in Baltimore, where he will bring War of Will to Pimlico Race Course on Tuesday for Saturday’s running of the 144th Preakness. Not many are forgetting what happened two weeks ago at the Kentucky Derby.

Casse is certain to be asked —probably more than once —about what many consider the most controversial outcome in Derby history and about some of the comments the normally even-keeled trainer made in its aftermath.

With neither Maximum Security, who became the first Derby winner in history to be disqualified, nor Country House, who was awarded the victory, in the field for the second leg of the Triple Crown, War of Will is likely to be among the favorites.

One thing is certain: Casse is not seeking nor expecting any gift from the racing gods after War of Will went from being among a pack of contenders to a distant seventh while being bumped —allegedly twice, according to Casse —by Maximum Security.

“Somebody said to me, ‘This is good revenge,’ ” Casse said. “I want to win the Preakness. We lost it two years ago (by a head). As long as our horse is happy and healthy, I think we should be there.”

Casse, one of the sport’s most respected and successful trainers who was inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 2016, said he thinks War of Will has come through a recent tough stretch in better shape than he thought possible.

After winning three straight races, with the maiden victory coming at Churchill Downs in November, War of Will went into the Louisiana Derby as the favorite. Shortly after leaving the starting gate, War of Will lost his footing in one of his hind legs and never recovered, finishing ninth.

There was initial concern that War of Will had done something to his patellar ligament. Casse said he believes for “maybe a megasecond, it slipped out of place and caught.” The day after the race, War of Will “was almost 95 percent,” Casse said.

Acknowledging “it was a little on the scary side, but not as scary as the Derby,” Casse added, “Even though we’ve had a lot of bad luck, we’ve also been very lucky as well. Maybe that’s why I can take all the bad luck and I feel just fortunate to have him in one piece.”

That War of Will has emerged as a Preakness contender is a story in itself.

Bred in Kentucky, War of Will was sold and shipped to France in the spring of 2018 to see if there was interest to purchase him there.

“The horses go in a sale and they do little sprints, and show how they move and everything,” Casse said. “My brother saw this horse and Gary Barber (War of Will’s current owner) has had some luck with his sire, War Front, and they bought him.”

In an unusual turn of events, War of Will returned to the United States and was eventually sent to Casse’s stable at Woodbine Race Track in Toronto.

“We kind of from the beginning thought he was special,” Casse said. “He ran in a maiden race (at Woodbine) and he got beat and I was shocked, honestly, but it was on the turf. Then I ran in a Grade 1 and he got beat by a length. That was on the turf. Then he was fourth in a (turf) race at Keeneland.”

It was after the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile Turf at Churchill Downs in November that Casse and Barber changed the course of War of Will’s career.

“He probably should have won the Breeders’ Cup (Juvenile) Turf, but he had a terrible trip,” Casse said. “He ran something like 60 or 70 feet farther than the winner and 80 feet farther than the second-place horse. If had won that, I don’t know when he would have ever run on the dirt again.”

Barber, a South African-born Hollywood film producer better known for a movie about a famous racehorse (Seabiscuit) than for owning thoroughbreds, had been urging Casse to try to run War of Will on dirt.

“As soon as he got beat, Gary was like, ‘Let’s run him on the dirt,’ ” Casse said. “The rest is history.”

Or at least part of history.

A rough ride at Churchill Downs was not new to Casse.

Two years ago at the Derby, pre-race favorite Classic Empire started in the No. 14 post and immediately got blocked by the six horses in the adjacent gates and ran much of the race well back in the pack before finishing fourth.

“We just got wiped out from the start,” Casse said.

This year, War of Will’s post position or the size of the field had “nothing to do with what happened.”

Casse said Maximum Security cut off War of Will “a little bit” at the half-mile pole and then more obviously on the back stretch. Casse said he didn’t understand the severity of the situation until he talked with Wall of Will’s jockey, Tyler Gaffalione, after the race.

“When Tyler came back to me after the race, he said, ‘We’re lucky we didn’t go down,’ ” Casse said. “He said that (Maximum Security jockey Luis) Saez came way out and hit us. The next thing we know, the objection sign goes up.”

Casse, who had watched the race on the racetrack’s feed, said he later took the 17 seconds of the NBC telecast after the final turn and broke it down into one-second intervals.

“In those 17 seconds, Maximum Security never stayed in the same lane one time for one of those seconds,” Casse said.

Casse stayed quiet initially, and said he didn’t file a protest since his horse didn’t finish in the money. But the trainer said some comments from Maximum Security’s connections sent him over the edge.

Casse told the Louisville Courier Journal last week that Saez put many in danger. On Monday, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission announced that Saez was suspended for 15 days by the Kentucky stewards for failing to control Maximum Security. A lawyer for Saez told the Associated Press that the suspension is “unwarranted” and that the rider’s legal team will file an appeal within 10 days.

“It’s almost like following a drunk driver,” Casse told the Courier Journal. “You don’t know which direction he’s going to go.”

With a smaller field and better weather forecast, Casse is hoping for a cleaner ride, and less controversial finish Saturday.

“The Preakness is a great race, and if you have a good 3-year-old, it’s where you want to run,” Casse said.

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