Mark Casse has never been so thankful for a seventh-place finish.
Casse’s horse, War of Will, finished seventh in a controversial Kentucky Derby on Saturday. That left Casse still searching for his first win in the annual Run for The Roses.
Of greater importance to the 10-time winner as Canada’s top trainer and Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Famer, however, was having a healthy and happy War of Will back after narrowly averting disaster on a sloppy Churchill Downs track.
“I feel like I’m a lucky guy, I’m lucky we still have the horse,” Casse said during a telephone interview. “It could’ve been the biggest disaster in horse-racing history.
“As much as I’ve wanted to win the Derby since I was eight, 10 years old, it didn’t really even bother me. I was just so happy the horse was OK that, really, the rest didn’t matter.”
Jockey Tyler Gaffalione had the son of War Front just behind leader Maximum Security coming off the final turn. But Maximum Security veered out several paths and nearly clipped heels with War of Will, who was forced to change course and thus impede rivals Long Range Toddy, Bodeexpress and Country House.
Maximum Security romped to a 1 1/2-length victory ahead of 65-1 longshot Country House but jockeys Flavien Prat (Country House) and Jon Court (Long Range Toddy) both claimed foul over Maximum Security and jockey Luis Saez following the race. After a 22-minute delay, stewards, upon reviewing video replays of the incident, disqualified Maximum Security and awarded Country House the historic win.
War of Will never recovered from the incident, finishing eighth before being elevated to No. 7 following the disqualification. War of Will was Casse’s seventh Derby starter, his best finish being fourth by Classic Empire, the ‘17 race morningline favourite.
“War of Will was very eager … the entire way down the backside he was locked and loaded,” Casse said. “We were getting ready to engage the leader and then we were going to find out who the best horse was but we never got that opportunity.
“I feel bad for (War of Will owner) Gary Barber because this is a dream for him as it is a dream for us and who knows what would’ve happened but it would’ve nice to at least have a legitimate chance. I feel bad for Gary West (Maximum Security’s owner), I feel bad for Jason Servis (Maximum Security’s trainer), I feel bad for Luis Saez. I also feel bad for Bill Mott (Country House trainer) because although he won the Kentucky Derby that’s not the way you want to win it.”
However, matters could’ve turned much uglier for both War of Will and Gaffalione. Television replays clearly showed the physical contact War of Will endured from both Maximum Security and Long Range Toddy and how at one point one of War of Will’s front legs was between Maximum Security’s back two.
“When Tyler came back after the race, he was a little shook up,” Casse said. “He said, ‘We clipped heels, we nearly went down.’
“I will say this, the horse racing world should be very happy it happened to War Of Will. For a big horse he’s just an amazing athlete and that’s what kept him up.”
Casse had War of Will back on the track Sunday and said the horse seemed none the worse for wear.
“He was perfect,” Casse said. “He was jumping around and acting like he didn’t run (Saturday).”
“If all goes well, we’re off to Pimlico (for the Preakness on May 18).”
Casse believes the stewards made the right decision, although he had some questions regarding the process.
“I absolutely believe they were right in their decision,” he said. “If it were the last race at Churchill Downs, it would’ve taken two minutes and the 22 minutes were because they just wanted to make darn sure they were making the right call and they did.
“If they made a mistake, and I’ve had this conversation with many stewards over the years, the inquiry sign should’ve come up right after the wire and it shouldn’t be up to the riders to have to object. That’s their (stewards’) job.”
Casse said there was a brief discussion in War of Will’s camp about launching a foul claim but it was quickly dismissed.
“Now, had he finished closer we would’ve claimed foul,” he said. “There certainly was no malice, it was a pure accident.
“But it cost our horse several placings. Possibly the win, maybe second or third.”
Predictably, the stewards’ decision was met with some media condemnation. USA Today, in a headline, said Maximum Security was “robbed at Kentucky Derby,” and the disqualification was “yet another black eye in horse racing.” That drew the ire of Casse.
“If you want to see a black eye for racing, if our horse had fallen it would’ve been world-wide news,” he said.