BALTIMORE – All trainer Mark Casse wanted after the controversy-marred Kentucky Derby was a fair shot for his powerful bay colt, War of Will, to show what he could do.
That chance came Saturday in the 144th Preakness Stakes, in which War of Will, ridden masterfully by 24-year-old jockey Tyler Gaffalione, had a smooth trip on the rail to emerge the victor in a 13-entrant field that was low on proven contenders — including Anothertwistafate, the first horse trained at Emerald Downs to compete in a Triple Crown race in over half a century, who finished 10th.
Casse insisted it wasn’t vindication, stressing instead how grateful he was, fully two weeks after the Derby, that his horse averted a potentially catastrophic fall when he nearly clipped heels with the veering Maximum Security just ahead of him in the slop.
“We were this close to never seeing him again,” Casse said, reflecting on the Derby controversy, in which Maximum Security was disqualified, and speaking about his pride in the thoroughbred whose initials spell his nickname, “W-O-W.” War of Will crossed the finish 1 1/4 lengths ahead of Everfast, who edged Owendale by a nose.
The race got off to an alarming start, with Bodexpress bucking so violently out of the gate that he tossed veteran jockey John Velazquez onto the track. Velazquez was uninjured, and the riderless Bodexpress galloped on, running slightly wide of the other horses the full 1 3/16-mile distance before being corralled by an outrider after doubling back. Bodexpress placed last but officially did not finish the race.
Unlike the Derby, there was no dispute about War of Will’s victory. Nor did any horse break down over the full afternoon of races. And that amounted to a broader victory for thoroughbred racing, which is two weeks removed from the controversial Derby finish and under scrutiny for the rash of deaths at earlier this year at Santa Anita Park and another Friday at Pimlico, where 3-year-filly Congrats Gal collapsed after crossing the finish and died of an apparent heart attack. The same day, Santa Anita saw its 24th equine death in the last five months.
Saturday’s race marked the first time in 23 years that the Kentucky Derby winner didn’t contest the middle jewel of the Triple Crown, stripping the Preakness of its most reliable and compelling story line: Would it produce a Triple Crown contender heading into June’s Belmont Stakes?
Country House was installed as the Derby winner when stewards disqualified Maximum Security, the first horse over the line, after concluding in a 22-minute review of the mud-slopped mayhem that the horse had interfered in his charge to the front.
Trainer Bill Mott decided against entering Country Horse in the Preakness, citing illness. Maximum Security, whose owner has filed a lawsuit over the disqualification, also skipped the Preakness, as did the third and fourth horses across the line, Code of Honor and Tactitus.
That made Improbable, the fifth-place Derby finisher (credited with fourth, after the disqualification), a most improbable favorite for the Preakness. He had yet to win in his three previous starts this year. On Saturday, he got visibly agitated in the gate, and Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert realized at once it was a bad sign.
“His only weakness is he gets a little bit fired up,” Baffert said. “When horses do that, it takes a lot of energy out.”
Improbable finished sixth, denying Baffert the distinction of becoming the first trainer to win eight Preakness Stakes.
War of Will and Improbable were two of just four Derby entrants to enter the Preakness. Nonetheless, a crowd of 131,256 reveled in the sun-streaked afternoon, as one band after another took the infield concert stage. Beer and cocktails flowed freely. For many, the credentials of the 13-horse field scarcely mattered.
As he had in the Derby, War of Will broke from the No. 1 post. Casse spoke with his jockey well beforehand about the importance of keeping the horse relaxed before the start, easing him into the pass and them letting him go.
“That was key,” Gaffalione said. “We just followed Warrior’s Charge the whole way around there. He came off the fence going into the turn, and I thought about waiting to go outside him. But he kept going out, out, out. So I took my shot. The horse didn’t hesitate, and he finished the job.”
Saturday’s Preakness may have been the penultimate Preakness. The Canada-based Stronach Group, which owns both Pimlico and Laurel Park, hopes to move the race to Laurel after the 2020 event. Baltimore’s political leaders oppose the move.
But the 149-year-old Pimlico Race Course is in dire need of repair and renovation.
A February 2017 study by the Maryland Stadium Authority concluded that the track needed $250 million in improvements. A follow-up study last year recommended that the complex be demolished and built anew, at a projected cost of $424 million.
In April, the track closed the Old Grandstand, taking roughly 6,700 seats out of commission for this year’s Preakness Stakes, after engineers concluded it could not bear the weight of so many spectators.
On Thursday, two days before the race, a water main broke in front of the complex. Whether the repairs were inadequate or additional pipes burst on Saturday is unclear. But water-pressure was so negligible on the fourth floor of the grandstand that those restrooms were closed. And lines for restrooms on lower floors were unusually long as the sunny afternoon of pre-race partying unfolded.
Asked about the myriad ways in which the facility seemed to be falling apart, Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer for racing and gaming for the Stronach Group, which owns Pimlico, said: “It gets tougher every year to give the experience that the customer deserves for an event like this. A pipe broke about two days before the race out front. We had one break two years ago. We go in and repair it, and I guess, what they’re telling me – the engineers – the pressure and everything, it takes so much time to build up, clogged, it’s just old infrastructure. We do everything we can to keep it up to the level we can.”