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War of Will has had a weird path to the Belmont Stakes

Tyler Gaffalione aboard War of Will in the

Tyler Gaffalione aboard War of Will in the winners circle after winning the 144th Preakness Stakes at Pimlico race course on May 18, 2019, in Baltimore. Photo Credit: AP/Steve Helber

He’s a real looker with world-class bloodlines, which convinced Gary Barber to part with almost $300,000 to own War of Will. Mark Casse, one of the country’s top trainers, was excited to have him in his barn.

“He’s a beautiful horse with a wonderful conformation and a pedigree that’s probably one of the best in North America,” Casse said. “He just has class, he’s laid-back, he knows his job and he does it.”

Yet from the beginning, very little has gone according to plan for War of Will. He’s a son of turf sire War Front (stud fee $250,000) and a grandson of Irish champion Sadler’s Wells, so Casse figured his future would be on grass.

He thought so highly of War of Will that after he ran third in his debut, Casse put him in three consecutive turf stakes. He was second and fourth before a tough-trip fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. Not bad, but nothing special, and he was still winless. So Casse rerouted his 0-for-4 puzzle to the main track, and he and new rider Tyler Gaffalione cruised by five lengths in the slop at Churchill Downs in his 2-year-old finale.

Winter in New Orleans went very smoothly. War of Will’s 3-year-old season began with stakes victories at the Fair Grounds in the Lecomte and the Risen Star, and suddenly the former underachiever was high on all the top 10 Kentucky Derby lists. Before the Louisiana Derby on March 23, Casse reflected on the dramatic turnaround on the dirt.

“Luckily, looking back, it was a good thing he didn’t win the Juvenile Turf,” he said. “He wouldn’t be where he is today.”

Then War of Will went nowhere as the Louisiana Derby’s 4-5 favorite. The ground broke out from under him shortly after the start, he lost his running action and plodded home ninth. A muscle strain in his hind end suffered during the race mproved almost overnight. “He just took an extremely weird step,” Casse said. “I’ve been training horses for 40 years, and I can’t ever remember a horse doing that from behind.”

It would get infinitely weirder and scarier in the Kentucky Derby. Approaching the stretch, front-runner Maximum Security spooked and veered two or three lanes to the right, severely impeding War of Will as he was making a strong move. He and Gaffalione were lucky not to fall, which could have triggered a catastrophic spill.

“I was so thankful after the race that War of Will was fine,” Casse said. “If he had gone down, he could have taken four or five horses with him. I was so thankful nobody got hurt that I didn’t even care about losing the race.”

War of Will was overdue for a break, and with the Preakness came poetic justice. He rode Pimlico’s golden rail to win by 1¼ lengths, giving Casse his first classic trophy. “It was the best feeling and my biggest accomplishment as a trainer,” he said. “It was very, very special.”

Saturday’s 1½-mile Belmont Stakes shapes up as War of Will’s biggest challenge yet. None of his nine opponents will have run in all three classics, and seven have been off for four or five weeks.

“The Belmont is a funny run race,” Casse said. “It usually helps speed, and he has plenty of it. The question is how willing he is to rate early.

“War of Will has thrown a few little curveballs at us, but his great mind and great ability are what allowed us to do what we’ve done. He’s always had some obstacle to overcome, and he’s always been able to do it.”

The pattern continued Tuesday morning at Belmont, when sirens went off because two horses got loose on the main track. The uninjured horses were caught before War of Will galloped strongly.

“Of course, there’s always something befalling War of Will,’’ Casse said. “My heart rate went up, but they said he acted fine.”

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