By: Rob Longley for Woodbine.com
TORONTO, February 15, 2019 – Wow. Just WOW.
On the program page he’s known as War of Will, but around the barn of trainer Mark Casse, the precocious three-year-old colt goes by his initials.
And the more he develops as a force on the dirt, the more the rest of the racing world is likely to take notice of the rapidly improving three-year-old.
As we start our weekly look at Kentucky Derby contenders leading up to the May 4 opening jewel of racing’s U.S. Triple Crown, it’s difficult not to ignore yet another powerful stable from trainer Bob Baffert. In 2018, the California-based superstar conditioner won his second Crown in four years as undefeated Justify romped to the title and, once again, the shed row is loaded.
More on Baffert later, but Canadian racing fans long familiar with the success of Woodbine-based trainer Casse are now getting accustomed to his appearance on the Kentucky Derby trail.
And in War of Will, who will look to continue his rapid progression in New Orleans in the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes this Saturday, Casse clearly has an exciting young colt pointed to the Crown. Despite drawing the outside Post 14 at the Fair Grounds, WOW is still listed as the 5-2 second choice for Casse, jockey Tyler Gaffalione and owner Gary Barber.
Originally a turf specialist – including a runner-up showing in the Summer Stakes at Woodbine last September – that surface moved into the backdrop after War of Will was fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf.
Three weeks later, the colt was breaking his maiden on the dirt at Churchill Downs, doing so in dominant fashion while going two turns. In his three-year-old debut, War of Will won just as impressively, taking the Lecomte Stakes at the Fair Grounds.
So was Casse surprised at the sudden dominance when he took the colt off the lawn? Not exactly.
“He trains like a super horse on the dirt,” Casse told America’s Best Racing. “He can do anything. He’s just an extremely talented horse. We had been flirting with running him on dirt for a long time. After the Breeders’ Cup, it just worked out.”
It’s already been an exciting and fruitful campaign for Casse with regards to the Derby.
Another talented runner, Dream Maker, had a huge effort in an eight-length allowance score at the Fair Grounds last weekend. Tentative plans are to separate the two prospects, with Dream Maker likely pointed to the March 9 Tampa Bay Derby – a favourite spot for Casse sophomores – while War of Will would look towards the Louisiana Derby.
WHAT ABOUT BOB?
Yes, it’s still early February, but given Baffert’s pedigree in the series, the Hall of Fame trainer is once again at the forefront.
With the Derby still a dozen weeks off on the horizon, the white-haired conditioner has at least two of the top sophomore prospects in training.
Leading the way is unbeaten Game Winner, who captured the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and was voted two-year-old champion in the U.S. Game Winner led all individual betting interests in the most recent Derby future wager at odds of 6-1.
Right behind that one, however, was another Baffert prodigy, Improbable, who closed as the 8-1 choice in that pool.
THE RACE IS ON
While most Derby contenders will still have two remaining races before the Run for the Roses, this weekend’s Risen Star marks the unofficial beginning of the more serious prep tests.
The $400,000 U.S., Grade 2 test is the first to award 50 qualifying points to the winner, virtually assuring a spot in the starting gate. The top four at the Fairgrounds get points – 50, 20, 10 and five.
In a more minor prep, Anothertwistafate headlines Saturday’s El Camino Real Derby with just seven of the 13 entrants nominated to the Triple Crown. The winner at Golden Gate Fields earns 10 points on the road to the Derby.
And rounding out the weekend action is the Southwest Stakes at Oakland Park. Sueno, for trainer Keith Desormeaux, is expected to be the favourite for the Monday race. Casse, meanwhile, is considering sending Olympic Runner to Arkansas for the $500,000 U.S. race contested over 1-1/16 miles.
DERBY TOP FIVE
1. Game Winner, trainer Bob Baffert
As we debut our weekly top five, it’s impossible not to go directly to the barn of last year’s Triple Crown-winning trainer, Baffert.
We’ve yet to see much from the unbeaten champ, who is four-for-four in his career as Baffert and owner Gary West shut him down following his Breeders’ Cup Juvenile win. Game Winner is pegged to make his three-year-old debut in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita on March 9.
2. Improbable, trainer Bob Baffert
Just as Justify lived in the shadow of McKinzie for part of last winter, Improbable has the same status with Game Winner. Don’t discount the son of City Zip for that, however.
Undefeated in three career starts, Improbable most recently won the Cash Call Futurity in December and is eyeing the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn on March 16. Worth noting, this colt has the same ownership as Justify.
3. Hidden Scroll, trainer Bill Mott
Generally, we don’t often see Mott with a horse on the Derby trail, but his eye-opening maiden win at Gulfstream Park on January 26 was such an eye-opener that most observers can’t wait for his next appearance. After that 14-length score, Mott is tentatively eyeing the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream on March 2.
4. War of Will, trainer Mark Casse
From a decent turf horse with promise to a machine on the dirt, Casse’s prospect can move to the head of the class with a win here. We also like the fact that he has a win under his belt at Churchill, a surface that not every colt gets across with ease.
5. Signalman, trainer Kenny McPeek
With a 2-2-1 mark in five career starts, he won the Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill to end his two-year-old campaign in style. A third-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile also is notable as McPeek eyes the Fountain of Youth for his three-year-old debut.
Follow Rob Longley’s weekly column on Woodbine.com chronicling the path to the Kentucky Derby, set for Saturday, May 4 at Churchill Downs. Be sure to join us in celebrating the first jewel of the U.S. Triple Crown at Woodbine’s annual exclusive Derby Day Party featuring fabulous food, fashion and entertainment.