BALTIMORE— Viewing sports as a morality play is naive and irrational. Yet once in a great while, athletic competition provides the poetic justice you usually see only in the movies. That was what the 144th Preakness Stakes was all about.
Two weeks after they narrowly averted a disastrous spill when Maximum Security veered into their path in the Kentucky Derby mud, War of Will and Tyler Gaffalione enjoyed the cleanest trip possible Saturday at Pimlico. War of Will shot up the wide-open rail in the stretch to give Gaffalione and trainer Mark Casse their first classic victory as a crowd of 131,256 screamed.
“I was fine after the Derby,” Casse said. “I was absolutely fine because I thought we were lucky. The only one luckier was horse racing, because we were this close to never seeing War of Will again.
“I’m not even calling it redemption. I didn’t feel like he got a fair shot and that’s all I wanted — a fair shot. He showed what he had today.”
It was over at the eighth pole, when War of Will opened a length on tiring pacesetter Warrior’s Charge. The margin over late-running 29-1 shot Everfast was 1 1/4 lengths, with Owendale third, a nose farther back and 1¼ lengths in front of Warrior’s Charge.
Laughing Fox was fifth, a nose ahead of Improbable, the 5-2 favorite who couldn’t give trainer Bob Baffert a record eighth Preakness trophy. Behind Improbable came Win Win Win, Bourbon War, Signalman, Anothertwistafate, Alwaysmining and Market King.
“War of Will broke well [from the rail] and relaxed more than usual today,” said Gaffalione, 24, the son and grandson of jockeys. “We just kept following Warrior’s Charge all the way around there, and then the horse finished the job.”
Just like the Derby, there was a scary incident, but at the start, not on the far turn. The winless Bodexpress reared up as the gates opened, dropping Hall of Famer John Velazquez. He said he wasn’t hurt, but the loose horse galloped along on the outside. An outrider kept him from interfering in the stretch, and Bodexpress finally was collared minutes after the race.
“He got me up against the wall in the gate and jumped sideways,” Velazquez said. “I had my feet out of the irons and couldn’t stay on. I’m good.”
Javier Castellano had won five stakes here in two days, and he tried to get another by leading all the way. Warrior’s Charge set quick fractions of 22.50 seconds for a quarter-mile, 46.16 for a half and 1:10.56 for 6 furlongs. He faded after a mile in a swift 1:35.48, just as War of Will and Gaffalione prepared to pounce.
“Warrior’s Charge came off the fence going into the turn, and I thought about waiting to go inside him, but he kept going out, out, out,” Gaffalione said. “So I took my shot and went through there.”
War of Will, a son of War Front, ran 1 3/16 miles in 1:54.34, the quickest Preakness on a fast track since Curlin (1:53.46) in 2007. He paid $14.20 for his fourth win in 10 starts. He earned $990,000 of the $1.65 million purse, raising his total to $1,491,569 for Gary Barber.
The field of 13 was historically blah, and the run-up lacked compelling storylines. For the first time since 1951, the Derby’s first four finishers — the disqualified Maximum Security, winner Country House, Code of Honor and Tacitus — didn’t run. Only Improbable had a Grade I victory. Only Alwaysmining and Laughing Fox had a win at 1 1/8 miles, and each came against weak competition. Market King and Everfast had one win apiece
But the middle jewel of this tarnished Triple Crown somehow produced an uplifting result. Even if you didn’t bet on War of Will, you had to like the 180-degree turnaround from the chaos in Louisville. Believers in those imaginary entities, “the racing gods,” felt validated.
“It really hasn’t even hit me yet,” Gaffalione said. “I’m just so happy for Mark and his team. Very happy for the horse. He deserved it more than anything.
“He’s so special. He’s got so much heart. We always knew he had the ability. We just had to get a little bit lucky, and today was our day.”