Unexpectedly eventful Preakness goes to War of Will

by | May 18, 2019 | Breaking, Maryland, MD Racing, Triple Crown Trail

War of Will won the 144th Preakness. Photo by Dottie Miller.

So much for an uneventful Preakness.

It was all going so well. The day was beautiful; warm, yes, but without a threat of rain. Other than Gary West’s ongoing attention-seeking reactions to Maximum Security’s disqualification in the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago, the week leading up to the 144th Preakness Stakes was devoid of unpleasant surprises, the focus was instead on the myriad good stories that might emerge from the race and on the opportunity to make money in a race that would lack a short-priced favorite.

Then the doors of the starting gate opened.

Within fractions of a second, Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez was on the ground, his mount #9 Bodexpress running cheerfully (if one might be permitted a moment of anthropomorphosim) on the outside of the field, at first keeping relatively decent pace with his rivals.

With thoughts of interference in recent Triple Crown races past, spectators watched Bodexpress as closely—or perhaps more—as they watched the runners, hoping that the renegade would stay clear, that he wouldn’t impede other runners, that he wouldn’t hurt himself.

Fortunately, he stayed out in the clear and did not impede the rest of the field.

Among the runners, there had been relatively little chatter about War of Will again drawing post one, as he had in the Kentucky Derby. Jockey Tyler Gaffalione and War of Will settled along the rail in fourth place, a few lengths off pacesetting Warrior’s Charge, inching up as the field rounded the far turn and began heading for home.

And almost as if ordained, the rail completely opened up for War of Will, leaving him a clear path to the wire, a path that he quickly seized, making the lead, drawing off to win by a length and a quarter.

1:54.34 after the gates opened, Bodexpress was still running, though he eventually was caught without incident. Velazquez was fine, saying on the NBC broadcast, “[Bodexpress] was not behaving good in the gate. He wasn’t standing really well, and he had me against the wall in the gate. When the doors opened, I was kind of off right from the start, and he kind of jumped sideways. I had my feet out of the irons, and I lost my balance and I went off.”

A charitable answer? Perhaps.

Bodexpress may not deserve all of the blame. A close review of the replay seems to show that the assistant starter had his hand on the horse’s bridle when the doors opened; the horse reared, Velazquez was off balance, and when they emerged from the gate, the rider was off.

The Pimlico stewards briefly lit an inquiry sign, then declared the race official.

And once again, what should have been a purely celebratory moment is shadowed by, if not controversy, at least questions, questions that the Maryland Racing Commission can help resolve by issuing a statement explaining why the stewards made the call they did.

The upside?

The sport of racing couldn’t ask for a better ambassador than Mark Casse, trainer of War of Will, the horse that took the worst of it from Maximum Security in the Derby and who emerged on Saturday evening triumphant, the undisputed winner who was also gracious in that defeat two weeks ago.

“I was absolutely fine because I thought was lucky” in Louisville, he said. “I was the luckiest guy, and the only one luckier was horse racing because we were this close to never seeing him again.

“I didn’t feel like he got his fair shot and that’s all I wanted: a fair shot. He showed what he had today.”

And so did Casse. While Gaffalione had no idea that there was a rider-less horse in the race, Casse did, and he was worried. Not about his horse: about Velazquez.

“Johnny is a dear friend of ours. A lot of these [jockeys] are our friends,” he said. “So we were worried. I used to always tell my riders, ‘Good luck,’ until a few years ago we had a horse go down and get hurt, and from that point on, I always just say, ‘Be safe,’ because that’s the most important thing of all for everybody.”

The Belmont Stakes is very much a possibility for War of Will, who will head back to Keeneland and, if he runs in the Belmont, travel to New York in late May.

“You know us,” he said. “We like to run.”

He might expect to see some of those Derby horses again in the Belmont, along with horses that haven’t been subject to the rigors of the Triple Crown trail. But Casse doesn’t much care about that, and he doesn’t much care about who ran with him today, and who stayed home.

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

Note: This article updated at 11:15 p.m.