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War of Will, Tyler Gaffalione saved the day in Kentucky Derby

Country House, ridden by Flavien Prat; War of

Country House, ridden by Flavien Prat; War of Will, with Tyler Gaffalione; Maximum Security, under  Luis Saez, and Code of Honor, ridden byJohn Velazquez fight for position in the final turn during the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 4 in Louisville, Ky. Credit: Getty Images/Andy Lyons

The freeze frame shows just how close thoroughbred racing came to a catastrophe. For two strides approaching Churchill Downs’ stretch, War of Will’s forelegs were inside the hind legs of front-running Maximum Security. Tyler Gaffalione had to check War of Will sharply, and somehow they didn’t fall.

“If War of Will clips heels and goes down at that point in the race, who knows how many other horses go down,” trainer Todd Pletcher said. “It was a great job by Tyler to stay on, and a great job by War of Will to stay upright.”

You know the rest. Maximum Security finished first by 1¾ lengths, but after a 22-minute inquiry he was disqualified to 17th for veering out two or three paths and causing interference. In the first 144 Kentucky Derbys, no winner ever had been taken down for a moving violation. Runner-up Country House inherited the roses, even though he was only slightly affected by the chain reaction that also impeded Long Range Toddy and Bodexpress.

Trainer Mark Casse compared War of Will’s nightmare trip “to following a drunk driver and trying to figure out which way to go.”  

The agility of Gaffalione and War of Will prevented carnage that would have wrecked the sport’s image and prompted calls to ban it.

“I think it would have been the worst day in horse racing history,” Casse said. Yet there was no poetic justice for the horse and rider who averted disaster. War of Will faded and came in eighth, 4½ lengths behind. Being placed seventh was little solace, but Casse was grateful that the colt came back with only a few scratches, which bordered on miraculous.

“It doesn’t get any closer than that,” said Allen Hardy, Casse’s assistant. “He’s just a remarkable animal and a good athlete. We watched the replays that night and it was terrifying.”

The interference stopped War of Will’s momentum and canceled his hope of winning or even finishing in the money. His consolation prize is a trip to next Saturday’s 144th Preakness Stakes, which will be without Maximum Security, Country House, Code of Honor and Tacitus, who ran 1-2-3-4. (Country House has a cough, trainer Bill Mott said.)

It’s the first time since 1996 that the Derby winner skipped the Preakness. (Grindstone suffered a career-ending knee injury in the race.) It’s believed to be the first time the Derby’s top four didn’t go to Pimlico.

“He’s doing great and feeling full of himself right now,” Hardy said Thursday. “I think we owe him a lot.”

War of Will was high on many Derby lists after dominating two winter preps at the Fair Grounds. His stock plunged after he ran ninth as the 4-5 favorite in the Louisiana Derby after stumbling shortly after the start. The ground broke out from under his hind legs and he lost his running action.

Casse felt sure the race was too bad to be true and decided he still had a Derby contender. Then War of Will drew the dreaded rail, which hasn’t produced a Derby champion since 1986.

“I just hope we get a better post,” Casse said. “Before the Derby, I said, ‘Anything but the 1.’ So he’s going to get the 1 in the Preakness. It’s kind of War of Will’s M.O. Nothing goes easy for him.”

The poster boy for bad luck in New Orleans and Louisville seems overdue for a break in Baltimore. So is Casse, a winner at Royal Ascot in England and five times at the Breeders’ Cup but never in the Triple Crown.    

“Everybody who knows me knows how much winning a classic would mean to me,” Casse said. “Nobody took a bigger beating in the Derby than we got, but I’m just happy to have a great horse who’s in one piece and going to the Preakness. He’s been through a lot of adversity and shown his class. It would be wonderful for him to pick up a classic win.”

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