by Jon White
June 6, 2019
Do you have a pen nearby? Go ahead and grab it. Next, get yourself a set of past performances for Saturday’s 151st running of the Grade I Belmont Stakes, the demanding 1 1/2-mile event that has drawn a field of 10.
Okay, now take a look at the past performances for those 10 horses. Focus on War of Will. Take your pen and draw a line through War of Will’s March 23 race, the Grade II Louisiana Derby. Also draw a line through his May 4 race, the Grade I Kentucky Derby.
Now take a fresh look at War of Will’s past performances. His record when racing on dirt looks a whole lot better, doesn’t it?
By drawing a line through the March 23 Louisiana Derby and May 4 Kentucky Derby, as if they never happened, you will see War of Will showing four victories in all four of his starts on dirt. You also will see that War of Will would be going into the Belmont with a four-race winning streak. If that were the case, his Belmont odds undoubtedly would be shorter than they are going to be Saturday.
Is it fair to draw a line through those two races on War of Will’s record? I think so.
War of Will’s Louisiana Derby was a non-race as far as he was concerned. As you probably know, he took an awkward step shortly after the start. His Louisiana Derby essentially was over right then and there. He finished ninth. He emerged from the race with a strained patellar ligament, according to his trainer, Mark Casse.
In light of what happened in the Louisiana Derby, it appeared doubtful that War of Will would be able to run in the Kentucky Derby. But War of Will did compete in the Run for the Roses. Casse and assistant David Carroll did an outstanding job to have War of Will ready to run on the first Saturday in May as well as he did.
In the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby, War of Will was full of run approaching the five-sixteenths marker. But he was impeded when pacesetter Maximum Security veered out sharply. Maximum Security went on to prevail by 1 3/4 lengths, but he was disqualified by the stewards and placed 17th for causing interference to War of Will, Bodexpress and Long Range Toddy. Country House was declared the official winner.
Gary and Mary West, owners of Maximum Security, have filed a federal lawsuit that seeks to overturn the stewards’ decision to disqualify Maximum Security.
Maximum Security did not run in the Grade I Preakness Stakes at Pimlico on May 18. He also is absent from the Belmont field. According to trainer Jason Servis, the goal now for Maximum Security is the Grade I Haskell Invitational at Monmouth on July 20, possibly preceded by a start in the Pegasus Stakes at Monmouth on June 16.
After War of Will’s troubled trip in the Kentucky Derby, he won the 1 3/16-mile Preakness by 1 1/4 lengths. He will be trying to snag a second Triple Crown jewel in Saturday’s Belmont.
Sweeping the Triple Crown is widely recognized as an extremely difficult feat. A horse must run in three races at three difficult distances at three different tracks in the span of five weeks. When Justify registered a 1 3/4-length victory in last year’s Belmont, he became just the 13th Triple Crown winner.
Because horses don’t race as much these days and tend to need plenty of time between starts, it has become an anomaly to simply start in all three Triple Crown events.
War of Will, to his credit, has the distinction of being the only horse this year to start in all three Triple Crown races. But when a horse like War of Will has gone through the entire Triple Crown grind, it does make his task somewhat harder in the Belmont because of having to run against fresher foes.
John Cherwa put it well when he wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Winning the 1 1/2-mile race, the longest of the Triple Crown, comes at a toll if you’ve run in all three. In this case only War of Will has to carry that burden.”
Does Tacitus have an advantage against War of Will because Tacitus skipped the Preakness? Yes. It’s one of the many reasons so many people are picking Tacitus to win the Belmont. Tacitus also regularly trains at Belmont. That means he also has a home-court advantage vis-a-vis War of Will.
“Over the years, one of the things that’s made the Belmont so tough is when the Derby and Preakness winners are here and get beat, it’s usually by a Belmont-based horse,” Casse was quoted as saying by Cherwa. “There’s an advantage to it.”
Tacitus’s breeding also is recognized as a big plus for him in the Belmont. He is a son of Tapit, who has emerged as a prolific sire of Belmont victors. Tapit has sired three of the last five winners: Tonalist in 2014, Creator in 2016 and Tapwrit in 2017.
In fact, the only two Belmont winners in the last five years not by Tapit were the two Triple Crown winners trained by Bob Baffert: American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018.
Close Hatches, Tacitus’ dam, was a champion who earned $2,707,300. She was voted a 2014 Eclipse Award as champion older female.
Hall of Famer Bill Mott trains Tacitus for the colt’s owner and breeder, Juddmonte Farms. Jose Ortiz is the jockey.
Mott won the 2010 Belmont with Drosselmeyer. Juddmonte won the 2003 Belmont with Empire Maker. Ortiz won the 2017 Belmont aboard Tapwrit and finished second in last year’s renewal on Gronkowski.
I wrote in the Los Angeles Times’ racing newsletter last week: “In terms of Belmont Stakes betting, it will be interesting to see whether Tacitus or War of Will is the favorite. I think it will be Tacitus, but not by a lot over War of Will.”
Belmont Park oddsmaker David Aragona obviously sees it the same way. He has pegged Tacitus as the 9-5 morning-line favorite, with War of Will a close second choice at 2-1. The only other entrant under 10-1 is Japan’s Master Fencer at 8-1.
Here are my Belmont Stakes selections:
Look, I certainly understand why Tacitus is such a popular pick to win the Belmont. But I don’t get why so many people seem to be avoiding War of Will as if he has the plague.
For instance, other than yours truly, nobody picked War of Will to win the Belmont in the Xpressbet Wager Guide. Millie Ball, Jeff Siegel and Dick Jerardi have selected Tacitus. Bob Neumeier and Steve Byk both have gone with Intrepid Heart.
SADLER’S WELLS IN FAMILY TREE SHOULD HELP
Some have expressed a concern about how War of Will is going to do at the Belmont’s 1 1/2-mile distance (it is this country’s only Grade I race on the dirt longer than 1 1/4 miles). Perhaps 1 1/2 miles will prove to be farther than War of Will wants to go. I admit that from a pure pedigree standpoint, I had much more confidence that Point Given, Empire Maker, Afleet Alex, Rags to Riches, American Pharoah and Justify would win the 1 1/2-mile Belmont than I do with War of Will.
But I do think there is sufficient stamina in War of Will’s bloodlines to get the job done Saturday. He’s a son of War Front and the Sadler’s Wells mare Visions of Clarity. War Front is by Danzig, who sired 1986 Belmont winner Danzig Connection.
Is it good to see Sadler’s Wells in a pedigree for a 1 1/2-mile race? You bet. This year’s Group I Epsom Derby serves as an excellent example.
Anthony Van Dyck, like War of Will, is a grandson of Sadler’s Wells. Just last Saturday, Anthony Van Dyck had the stamina to capture the 1 1/2-mile Epsom Derby.
It says a lot about Sadler’s Wells being a source of stamina that you will find his name somewhere in the pedigree of all 13 starters in this year’s Epsom Derby. The primary reason for his influence on the 2019 Epsom Derby is the phenomenally successful sire Galileo, a son of Sadler’s Wells. Remarkably, 12 of the 13 runners in last Saturday’s Epsom Derby descend from Galileo as a son, grandson or great-grandson.
Galileo won the Epsom Derby in 2001. Anthony Van Dyck became the record-tying fourth son of Galileo to win the Epsom Derby. Additionally, Anthony Van Dyck became trainer Aidan O’Brien’s record-tying seventh triumph in that historic event. All seven of O’Brien’s seven Epsom Derby winners, starting with Galileo, are descendants of Sadler’s Wells.
Okay, now go back to those War of Will’s past performances that you earlier had taken a pen and drawn a line through two of his races. After drawing a line through War of Will’s Louisiana Derby and Kentucky Derby, you then will see that the last time that he lost was when he finished fifth in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf at Churchill Downs last Nov. 2.
Casse has said he believes War of Will might have won the BC Juvenile Turf if not for a very wide trip that day.
Despite War of Will’s wide trip in the BC Juvenile Turf, he still managed to outrun none other than the future winner of the Epsom Derby. That’s right. In the BC Juvenile Turf, War of Will outran 3-1 favorite Anthony Van Dyck, who finished ninth.
My belief that Sadler’s Wells’ presence in War of Will’s pedigree could possibly enable him to succeed in a 1 1/2-mile race is similar to how Princequillo played a major role in providing Secretariat with a considerable dose of stamina that blended so beautifully with the sheer speed and class that he no doubt got to a large degree from his sire, Bold Ruler.
In his book “Big Red of Meadow Stable: Secretariat, the Making of a Champion,” William Nack pointed out that as a racehorse Princequillo “won at the longest of American distances -- the longer the better.” After Princequillo’s racing days were over, he became tremendously influential as a sire and particularly as a broodmare sire by providing much stamina in a pedigree.
Prior to the 1973 Kentucky Derby, a huge knock on Secretariat was the refrain that a son of Bold Ruler could not possibly win that classic because 1 1/4 miles was too far for anyone by that sire. But thanks in large measure to Princequillo, Secretariat thumbed his nose at such a notion by winning the Derby in 1:59 2/5 to set a track record that still stands 46 years later.
Of course, again thanks in large measure to Princequillo, Secretariat possessed the stamina to win the even longer 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes by 31 stupendous lengths in 2:24 flat to obliterate Gallant Man’s track record by 2 3/5 seconds. I seriously doubt anybody is going to ever get close to that track record of Secretariat’s. It remains the fastest 1 1/2 miles run by a horse on dirt in history.
TRAINING TODAY IS VERY DIFFERENT
Speaking of Secretariat, in terms of workouts, consider how differently he was trained than War of Will in preparation for the Belmont.
How many workouts will War of Will have had between the Preakness and Belmont? None.
Secretariat had not one, not two, but three workouts between the two races. All three drills took place on the Belmont Park main track under the supervision of trainer Lucien Laurin.
Secretariat won the Preakness on May 19. On May 27, he worked six furlongs in 1:12 1/5. On June 1, he worked one mile in 1:34 4/5.
Nack wrote that Laurin had wanted jockey Ron Turcotte to work Secretariat a mile in 1:36.
“He went faster than I really wanted,” Nack quoted Laurin as saying. “But he did it so easily that I am very pleased.”
According to Nack, “there were murmurs from other trainers that Laurin had worked his horse too fast.”
But the 1:34 4/5 workout “hardly bothered Secretariat,” Nack noted.
On June 6, “Secretariat was ready for the third and final workout [between the Preakness and Belmont], one of those zingers to open his eyes and bring him to his toes,” Nack wrote. “Laurin told Turcotte to let the colt roll for a half-mile, and the red horse took off with him around the turn. It was one of those gray, melancholy mornings at Belmont Park -- a chill was in the air -- and when the colt appeared turning for home he seemed to emerge through the mists, grabbing at the ground and folding it under him. You could hear him breathing through all of the upper straight. For those who sought to beat him in the Belmont Stakes, that move was an omen. As Secretariat flashed past the wire, the clockers caught him in a fiery :46 3/5.”
Three days after that :46 3/5 “zinger,” Secretariat won the Belmont Stakes in what many believe to be the greatest performance in the history of American racing.
WAR OF WILL’S PREAKNESS UNDERAPPRECIATED?
Some have expressed the notion that they are going against War of Will in the Belmont because he had such a perfect trip in the Preakness.
Did War of Will have a perfect trip in Baltimore? Yes. But because he is a talented equine athlete who is blessed with tactical speed, another ideal trip in the Belmont could be in the cards.
I also don’t think War of Will is getting the credit he probably deserves for his final time of 1:54.34 in the Preakness. Granted, the track seemed faster than normal. The day before the Preakness, the 3-year-old filly Covfefe won the Grade III Miss Preakness Stakes by stepping six furlongs in a record-smashing 1:07.70. Covfefe broke the track record of 1:09.00 set by Northern Wolf back in 1990.
But even though the main track appeared to be faster than usual for this year’s Preakness, War of Will’s 1:54.34 clocking still was pretty impressive when compared to recent editions of the race. It was the fastest Preakness since Curlin won it in 1:53.46 in 2007.
In fact, War of Will’s final time of 1:54.34 made it the second-fastest Preakness since Louis Quatorze won the race in 1:53.40 in 1996. The Preakness record is 1:53.00, a clocking credited to Secretariat for his 1973 victory that probably is remembered the most for the electrifying early move he made on the first turn to go from last to first.
Below are the final times for the last 20 Preaknesses:
Time (Year) Winner
1:53.46 (2007) Curlin
1:54.34 (2019) War of Will
1:54.65 (2006) Bernardini
1:54.84 (2014) California Chrome
1:54.86 (2008) Big Brown
1:55.04 (2005) Afleet Alex
1:55.08 (2009) Rachel Alexandra
1:55.40 (2001) Point Given
1:55.47 (2010) Lookin At Lucky
1:55.59 (2004) Smarty Jones
1:55.61 (2003) Funny Cide**
1:55.93 (2018) Justify*
1:55.94 (2012) I’ll Have Another
1:55.98 (2017) Cloud Computing
1:56.00 (2000) Red Bullet**
1:56.40 (2002) War Emblem
1:56.47 (2011) Shackleford*
1:57.54 (2013) Oxbow
1:58.31 (2016) Exaggerator*
1:58.46 (2015) American Pharoah*
Regarding War of Will’s Preakness performance, also keep this in mind: Daily Racing Form’s Matt Bernier makes the point that War of Will “was relatively close to a hot pace, yet still ended up with the fourth-fastest come-home time in the race.”
I think Bernier hit the nail on the head when he also wrote: “War of Will was the beneficiary of a perfect stalking trip at Pimlico three weeks ago, sitting the pocket before shooting up the rail and prevailing. Most handicappers would immediately downgrade War of Will’s effort because of the excellent trip he earned in Baltimore, but I think his effort may be better than it appears at face value.”
Even though I am picking War of Will to win the Belmont, am I concerned that he might get beat due to the grind of running in all three Triple Crown races? Yes, I am. But I think the unusual circumstances stemming from his hiccup in the Louisiana Derby might actually help him Saturday.
Don’t forget, the Preakness really was only War of Will’s second meaningful race since the Risen Star on Feb. 16 because he certainly did not get much out of the March 23 Louisiana Derby. Consequently, he might have more gas in his tank for the Belmont than most horses do if they have run in all three Triple Crown races.
War of Will was headstrong early in the Kentucky Derby. It was good that he was not so keen early in the Preakness. Casse is cognizant that it is important for War of Will to relax early as much as possible when having to go 1 1/2 miles in the Belmont.
“The key to it all is having a horse that will relax, because the horse that’s going to fight you early is going to be tiring in the end,” Casse said Tuesday after the draw for post positions at New York’s Citi Field.
War of Will is a striking individual physically. Earlier this year, Casse went so far as to call him a superstar. Maybe War of Will is a superstar, maybe he isn’t. But if it does turn out that Casse is right about that, War of Will might not only win Saturday’s Belmont, he just might put on quite a show.
THIS WEEK’S NTRA POLLS
Here is the Top 10 for this week’s NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll:
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
1. 373 Bricks and Mortar (31)
2. 302 McKinzie (5)
3. 198 Mitole
4. 188 Midnight Bisou
5. 171 Gift Box
6. 157 World of Trouble
7. 155 Catholic Boy (1)
8. 107 Vino Rosso
9. 75 Monomoy Girl
9. 75 Thunder Snow
9 75 Vasilika
Here is the Top 10 for this week’s NTRA Top 3-Year-Old Poll:
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
1. 359 War of Will (18)
2. 358 Maximum Security (15)
3. 291 Omaha Beach (6)
4. 255 Country House
5. 222 Tacitus
6. 206 Code of Honor
7. 128 Game Winner
8. 81 Serengeti Empress
9. 55 Owendale
10. 45 Improbable