by Jeremy Plonk
February 18, 2019
Optimism abounds on the Triple Crown trail, so much that it greases many parts of the industry engine. From breeders to buyers to owners to trainers to jockeys and bettors alike, there’s a real “It could be my turn” nature about each winter into spring. Optimism for the Triple Crown season alone doesn’t fuel the industry, but it has a decided impact, perhaps as much as any other moving part.
So it’s not uncommon to talk optimism as the Kentucky Derby prep season rolls through mid-February. But what seems even more optimistic than usual in 2019 is the front-and-center presence of two of the game’s most positive-thinking trainers. Any list of Top 20 contenders, mine included within Countdown to the Crown, includes a significant appreciation for Mark Cassse’s War of Will and Kenny McPeek’s duo of Signalman and Harvey Wallbanger.
Between Casse and McPeek you won’t find a more optimistic pair on the backstretch. Affability makes for a good salesman, and, true, a big part of being a high-level trainer is being able to sell owners on the same dreams. You must deliver to a degree on those dreams or faith gets lost. While neither Casse nor McPeek has yet to win a Kentucky Derby, the former has been highly successful in the Breeders’ Cup, while the latter has hoisted a Belmont Stakes trophy.
Casse and McPeek have more than done enough to keep the dreams alive, and perhaps fuel optimism eternally. Any year could be their year, after all. Why not 2019?
The Kentucky Derby has not been kind to either so far. Casse is 6: 0-0-0 in the run for the roses, topped by the fourth-place finish in 2017 by champion 2-year-old Classic Empire, who would run second in the Preakness. McPeek sports a similar 6: 0-1-0 record in the Derby, runner-up in his 1995 debut with Tejano Run and notably since seventh in 2002 with post-time favorite Harlan’s Holiday.
A year after Justify smashed a lot of Derby deal-breakers for handicappers, surely no one is going to line up to bet against Casse and McPeek this year based solely on 0-for-6 records on the first Saturday in May. It will come down, rightly so, to their horses and if they’re good enough and fortunate enough to stay healthy and eventually land a good trip.
The Casse-trained War of Will has done everything right in three starts on dirt. His victory Saturday in the G2 Risen Star at Fair Grounds was a highly commendable performance from a far outside draw. He pressed the pace and scored with that first-over run that has won every Kentucky Derby since California Chrome in 2014. He made his trip from that draw, vs. ‘getting’ the trip. It’s exactly what you hope to see. War of Will is a Louisiana Derby away from heading to Louisville one of the race’s strongest contenders. But there’s work left to do, and we know Bob Baffert and Jerry Hollendorfer in California won’t be shy.
McPeek’s pair of charges are a bit farther behind than War of Will at this point, but he has optimism in numbers. Last fall’s Kentucky Jockey Club winner Signalman has danced the big dances and showed with his Breeders’ Cup Juvenile third that he’s in the discussion with the tops of his crop. He’ll return in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park for his 3-year-old unveiling. The ‘other’ McPeek is Holy Bull Stakes upsetter Harvey Wallbanger. His come-from-behind style was flattered in a fast-paced race Feb. 2 that produced his nearly 30-1 victory. Sure, Harvey Wallbanger will have to do it again and earn more qualifying points and substantiate his upset claim. But closers on the trail this time of year always provide optimism vs. those wondering just how 1-1/4 miles will hit their horses.
Casse and McPeek aren’t strangers to the Triple Crown trail. And their optimism can sometimes seem like rose-colored glasses to some. But I’ll be rooting for them as winter turns to spring. The trail may not always beg for more optimism, but in this current social climate, we’ll take all we can get.