Decorated trainer Casse chasing first Derby title with War of Will

Mark Casse will need some racing luck Saturday to secure his first-ever Kentucky Derby title.

The Casse-trained War of Will will break from the No. 2 post in the 19-horse field at Churchill Downs. Seven horses have won the Derby from there, but not since Affirmed in 1978. To make War of Will, a 16/1 early pick, the eighth will be a huge challenge for jockey Tyler Gaffalione.

“The good thing is our horse is fast … if you push the gas pedal he can go and go quickly,” Casse, a 10-time trainer of the year in Canada, said in a telephone interview. “You know, it’s better than No. 21 because if you had No. 21 you wouldn’t be in the race.

“We’re in the race. It is what it is.”

While the inside post gives Gaffalione the shortest path to the finish line, there’s also the threat of quickly getting boxed in. War of Will might have to expend early energy to escape that, which could impact how much the horse has left at the end.

It adds another element to an already tactical and strategic race.

“It’s like running three or four different races at a time,” Casse said. “There’s always positioning, you’ve got to use your horse to get position down the stretch.

“Then you’ve got to get around the (first) turn and get into position and if you’ve kind of gotten shuffled back a little you don’t want to be real far out of it with a half-mile to go. We’ve all driven down the highway and come up to where we’re going to get stopped behind traffic so we hit the gas a little to get ourselves up and out of there. It’s no different.”

The field was reduced to 19 horses Friday when 30-1 longshot Haikal was scratched because an abscess in his left front foot. On Wednesday, pre-race favourite Omaha Beach was scratched due to an entrapped epiglottis that required minor throat surgery.

Subsequently, the rail will remain empty and the field will break from Posts 2 through 20. War of Will had originally drawn the No. 1 post but will line up at No. 2 on Saturday.

War of Will is Casse’s seventh Derby starter. His best finish was fourth by Classic Empire, the ‘17 race favourite. It’s a result that still stings.

“That one will always hurt the most because I’ve always felt like he should’ve won the Kentucky Derby,” Casse said. “But as a trainer, all you want is to have a chance.

“If they’re not good enough, then, OK, they’re not good enough. You don’t want factors that you have no control of beating you. We came in with Classic Empire, who was one of the favourites, but most of the time we’ve come in thinking we need things to go our way to have a chance. With this horse, we just need him to have a fair shot and he’s got as good a shot as anybody.”

War of Will comes into the Derby well under the radar. He was ninth in his last race, the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds in New Orleans on March 23.

War of Will stumbled early, suffering a strained patellar ligament that left Casse very thankful the prognosis wasn’t worse. War of Will quickly resumed training and put on quite a show last weekend at Churchill Downs, covering four furlongs in a rather quick 47 3/5 seconds in his final Derby workout.

“We had some back luck in New Orleans but I was just happy to see him come back in one piece,” Casse said. “In all honesty, I couldn’t ask him to train better than he’s trained.

“If anything he may even come into this a little lighter than he was in New Orleans. He’s a little fitter and we kind of tightened the screws on him a little bit. We don’t want to come into the Kentucky Derby half cocked. We’re coming with both barrels and ready.”

Casse, 58, has long been a dominant presence in thoroughbred circles. Last month he was named Canada’s top trainer for an unprecedented 10th time and has amassed over 2,000 career victories.

Included are all three legs of the Canadian Triple Crown (Queen’s Plate, Prince of Wales, Breeders’ Stakes), the Woodbine Mile and four Breeders’ Cup events. However, one title that’s eluded Casse is the Kentucky Derby, the opening leg of American racing’s Triple Crown.

“I think the Kentucky Derby drives everything,” Casse said. “I know it’s driven me for 48, 49 years.”

War of Will had established himself as a horse to beat heading into the Louisiana Derby, sitting atop the Kentucky Derby points standings (60) following impressive wins in the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes on Jan. 19 (four lengths) and Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes on Feb. 16 (2 1/4 lengths). He’d won three straight races overall and was trying to become the first horse to sweep the three Derby qualifiers at Fair Grounds since International Star in 2015.

“Obviously we would’ve loved to be going into the Derby on a four-race win streak,” Casse said. “But the nice part is we kind of go in a little bit under the radar here.

“I’ve always felt he was one of the best three-year-olds in North America. The Derby is an extremely tough race and I think the trip is going to be part of it as well as the post position. We don’t have American Pharoah (‘15 Triple Crown winner) or Justify (2018 Triple Crown winner) here, we have a solid bunch of three-year-olds that need things to go their way and whoever gets the best trip and has some luck is going to win.”

Casse also has a horse in the Kentucky Oaks, a US$1-million race Friday for three-year-old fillies. American-bred Chocolate Kisses, with jockey Julien Leparoux aboard, will break from the No. 2 post in the 14-horse field at early 20-1 odds.

The Casse-trained Wonder Gadot, Canada’s reigning horse of the year, was second to Monomoy Girl in last year’s race. Wonder Gadot went on to win the $1-million Queen’s Plate and $400,000 Prince of Wales Stakes, the first two jewels of Canada’s Triple Crown.

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