2019 Preakness: War of Will Wins in Dramatic Rebound From Kentucky Derby Loss

By Joe Drape

The deep breaths came fast and furious in the opening moments of the 144th running of the Preakness Stakes, and for good reason: John Velazquez, a Hall of Fame jockey, was airborne one moment and in the dirt the next after his colt, Bodexpress, broke out of the starting gate like a rodeo horse rather than a thoroughbred.

This old, tradition-steeped American sport could not withstand another catastrophe or controversy. Dead horses, too many of them, have drawn a bull’s-eye around its existence. A multimillion-dollar disqualification in the Kentucky Derby had first confused and then angered casual sports fans who tune in to horse racing for the five weeks in the spring that the Triple Crown commands their attention.

Horse racing is on the ropes. Big time.

When Velazquez rolled and then popped to his feet, thoroughbred lovers were given permission, for at least the next 1 minute 54.34 seconds, if not exactly to enjoy a horse race then at least to wish the horses a safe journey around Pimlico, a historic — read: dilapidated and old — racetrack.

They did, and the middle jewel of the Triple Crown managed to deliver a satisfying, even redemptive story. The winner, War of Will, hugged the rail for most of the mile-and-three-sixteenths distance, just as he did in the Kentucky Derby, before scooting to the middle of the track and holding off the challenge of a long shot named Everfast. War of Will’s jockey, Tyler Gaffalione, rubbed his colt’s neck and trained his eyes between the horse’s ears.

“I was just hoping we’d hold on,” he said. “I didn’t want to look back.”

It’s easy to see why.

Two weeks ago, beneath the twin spires of Churchill Downs, War of Will lost a chance at victory after tangling with Maximum Security as Gaffalione and his colt turned for home in the 145th running of the Derby, America’s most famous horse race.

Maximum Security crossed the finish line first and appeared to be the emphatic winner until three Kentucky stewards, horse racing’s version of referees, ruled that the colt had jumped a puddle and impeded the progress of War of Will and two other horses.

Maximum Security was disqualified, and his jockey, Luis Saez, was suspended for 15 days. In the days since, the owners of Maximum Security, Gary and Mary West, have filed a lawsuit in federal court asking that the disqualification be reversed.

Mark Casse, the trainer of War of Will, took the Derby brouhaha in stride until the Wests and some of the betting public started pointing the fingers at Gaffalione and his colt. It did not sit well with Casse.

“I felt joy and relief that we didn’t have the most disastrous incident in American horse racing history,” he said.

Casse was right to be defiant.

He thinks War of Will might have won the Derby. “If it wasn’t for the incident,” he said, “it would have been a great race down the lane.”

He did not care if this year’s Preakness was a low-wattage affair. He didn’t care that Maximum Security was not here and that neither was Country House, the runner-up in the Derby that was declared the official winner.

He was not going to apologize, either, that for the first time since 1951, the second leg of the Triple Crown did not include any of the first four horses that crossed the finish line in the Derby.

“We just won the Preakness,” he said. “I really don’t care who was in it.”

If Casse and Gaffalione felt as if they helped avert disaster in Kentucky and deserved some accolades at Pimlico, no one could blame them.

Of late, any news about horse racing has been bad news.

On Friday, a 3-year-old filly named Congrats Gal died soon after pulling up and finishing last in the Miss Preakness Stakes.

Earlier that day at Santa Anita Park in Southern California, a 3-year-old gelding named Commander Coil became the 24th fatality at the racetrack since Dec. 26, a series of events that has twice led to the suspension of racing at the legendary track and threatened to close down the sport in the state forever.

The fatality was the first since March 31 at Santa Anita, which announced a ban on the use of medication and whips on racing days after the 22nd death.

“We’re looking at ourselves all the time of what we can do to improve, what the sport can do to improve,” said Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of the Stronach Group, which owns Pimlico and Santa Anita.

Ritvo knows the stakes are high, especially in California, where it takes just 600,000 signatures in a state of more than 39 million to get a ballot initiative before voters to decide if the sport should be banned.

“We were really devastated and close to seeing racing go away,” he said.

The record will show that War of Will earned a $990,000 first-place check for his owner, Gary Barber. He also rewarded his backers with $14.20 for a $2 bet.

Someone asked Casse how much weirder this Triple Crown season can get. Doesn’t he just want to take his horse, and his victory, and go home?

No, he said.

“I think we’ve covered bizarre already, so no, I’m not worried,” Casse said, adding that if War of Will is healthy, he is on to the Belmont Stakes in three weeks. “This is the life we live each and every day.”


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