2019 Kentucky Derby Contender Profile: War of Will

Profile Picture: J. Keeler Johnson

January 20th, 2019

As the old saying goes, a good horse can come from anywhere, so by extension a Kentucky Derby contender must be able to come from anywhere… even if he’s a turf-bred youngster back from a foray in Europe.

That, in essence, is the journey of War of Will, who joined the Road to the Kentucky Derby with a decisive victory in the Lecomte Stakes (gr. III) on Saturday at Fair Grounds. Bred of Flaxman Holdings, War of Will has always had the pedigree of a top-class turf horse—his sire, War Front, is an internationally renowned sire of high-class grass stars, while his dam sire—Sadler’s Wells—was one of the greatest stallions in European racing history.

Thus, it wasn’t exactly surprising to see War of Will offered for sale at the May 2018 Arqana breeze-up sale in Deauville, France. He seemed like a perfect fit for the racing scene in Europe, but in the end he was plucked out of the sale by Justin Casse, who paid $298,550 for the bay colt.

Subsequently, War of Will was returned to North America and placed in the care of Justin’s father, the five-time Breeders’ Cup-winning trainer Mark Casse, Racing in the colors of owner Gary Barber, War of Will debuted on August 24 at Woodbine with a third-place finish in a maiden race on turf, but he showed significant improvement when coming home second in the Summer Stakes (gr. I) about three weeks later, tracking the pace and leading into the homestretch before falling less than a length short of victory.

Following two more gallant but frustrating defeats in the Bourbon Stakes (gr. III) and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (gr. I), Casse made the decision to give War of Will a try on dirt, and the results have been eye-catching. With new rider Tyler Gaffalione in the saddle, War of Will had little difficulty dismissing ten rivals in an 8.5-furlong maiden special weight at Churchill Downs—securing his first victory by five easy lengths—and two months later he was best by a similar margin in the Lecomte Stakes while facing tougher competition.

With solid efforts over firm turf, yielding turf, fast dirt, and slop, War of Will has shown remarkable versatility during his relatively brief career. He’s also catapulted himself onto the Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with 10 qualification points, and he’s earned high praise from Casse, who has already trained a bevy of champions and talented runners. “This was about a month ago, but I had some friends over and I said ‘We have a big chance to win the Derby this year.’ I don’t usually say things like that, so that tells you what I think of him,” Casse told Fair Grounds publicity following the Lecomte.

Current plans call for War of Will to target the February 16 Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) at Fair Grounds, and a victory in that race would virtually assure him a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate. Only time will tell how high War of Will will rise, but for a colt who seemed destined for a future on turf in Europe, the promise he’s shown on dirt is as surprising as it is exciting.