War of Will looks to notch second Classic win
ELMONT, N.Y. — Mark Casse waited more than 30 years to earn his first victory in an American Classic. After Gary Barber's War of Will won the Preakness, the veteran trainer will have a chance to notch his second in three weeks as the War Front colt highlights an accomplished 10-horse field in the Grade 1, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets on Saturday at Belmont Park.
The culmination of the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival featuring 18 total stakes, including 15 graded contests from June 6-8, the 151st running of the "Test of the Champion" is carded as Race 11 on a packed 13-race card that includes eight Grade 1 races and purses totaling more than $9 million. NBCSN will have live coverage from 2:30 to 4 p.m. Eastern with NBC broadcasting from 4-7 p.m., including the Belmont Stakes with an approximate post time of 6:35 p.m.
Casse, a six-time Sovereign Award winner for Outstanding Trainer in Canada who won his first race in 1979, has two contenders for the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes, with Tracy Farmer's Sir Winston joining War of Will in the starting gate.
"I learned a long time ago to not think about that kind of stuff," Casse said about his bid to make history. "Right now, the only thing I'm focusing on is getting there. "There's so many variables and so many things that can happen, that I just focus on the future. If Sir Winston wins, and people ask me what I'm thinking about, I'll be thinking about 'how can we win the Travers?' Right now, we just focus day-to-day. After this morning, I couldn't be happier."
War of Will earned a personal-best 99 Beyer Speed Figure, rallying in the final furlong for a 1 ¼-length score in the Preakness. Looking to become the 100th all-time Belmont winner bred in Kentucky, War of Will enters with wins in four of his last six starts, including back-to-back victories in the Grade 3 LeComte and Grade 2 Risen Star this winter at Fair Grounds that set him up for a Kentucky Derby start, where he placed seventh.
"I think he's put on 40 to 50 pounds and that's what we've been looking for," Casse said about his post-Preakness weight gain. "We kind of know everyone in the field by now. I tend to just worry about my horses and not anybody else's. If the pace is slow, he'll probably be on the lead. If it's quick, hopefully he'll sit behind the pacesetters."
The 2-1 second choice, War of Will, the only horse to run in all three legs of the Triple Crown this year, retains the services of jockey Tyler Gaffalione, who won his first Triple Crown race with the Preakness victory. The duo will break from post 9.
War of Will can become the first horse since Afleet Alex in 2005 to complete the Preakness-Belmont double, a feat accomplished by just 12 horses, starting with Cloverbrook in 1877 [excluding the 13 Triple Crown winners]. Among that dozen includes all-time greats Man o' War in 1920, Native Dancer in 1953, Nashua in 1955 and Damascus in 1967.
"Over the years, one of the things that's made Belmont so tough is when the Derby and Preakness winners are here and get beat, it's usually by a Belmont-based horse. There's an advantage to it. But, I've had this since the beginning, that great horses can win when things aren't perfect. Is it ideal? No. Can he win? Absolutely," Casse said.
War of Will's stablemate, Sir Winston, enters with momentum following a runner-up finish to Global Campaign in the Grade 3 Peter Pan, the traditional local prep for the Belmont, on May 11 at 1 1/8 miles on Big Sandy.
The Awesome Again colt earned a 100 Beyer for that effort, improving off a seventh-place finish in the Grade 2 Blue Grass on April 6 at Keeneland. Listed at 12-1 odds, Sir Winston drew post 7 with Joel Rosario set to ride.
"I thought it was extremely encouraging," Casse said of Sir Winston, who schooled in the Belmont paddock with War of Will Tuesday morning. "If the pace were to get pretty hot, it's going to help Sir Winston, because he's truly a mile-and-a-half horse. One thing about it; the pace won't likely be as fast, so he probably won't come as far out of it. But we're not going to take him out of his way. Joel will let him be comfortable, and he'll come running."
Juddmonte Farms' Tacitus will look to give Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott a chance to accomplish a rare feat and win two legs of the Triple Crown with different horses. The Mott-trained Country House was placed first in the Kentucky Derby following Maximum Security's disqualification, which also moved Tacitus up from fourth to third to give Mott two-thirds of the trifecta.
Tacitus, who won the Grade 2 Wood Memorial presented by NYRA Bets in April at Aqueduct Racetrack, skipped the Preakness to ready for the grueling Belmont Stakes distance. The well-rested Kentucky homebred will attempt to make Mott the first trainer since fellow Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas to win two Classics with multiple horses. Lukas won the 1996 Kentucky Derby with Grindstone and the Belmont with Editor's Note, which came a year after Lukas trained Derby and Belmont-winner Thunder Gulch and Preakness winner Timber Country.
"Had Tacitus won the Kentucky Derby, I suppose we would have taken a chance at the Preakness, but we didn't feel like we wanted to run him back in two weeks," Mott said.
Instilled as the 9-5 morning-line favorite, Tacitus is one of three Tapit colts in the Belmont field, along with Bourbon War and Intrepid Heart. Tapit has sired three of the last five Belmont winners.
Tacitus, who rallied from 16th at the half-mile mark in the Derby, will look for a smoother trip in the Belmont.
"He got back quite a ways, back in the pack," Mott said of the trip at Churchill Downs. "The way the track was and traffic, he didn't get stopped but he had to keep looking for room. With the big field, he had to keep changing direction and changing course — go inside, go outside — so it wasn't smooth, he had to alter course. That being said, he came running and finished well at the end.
"Generally, going a mile and a half they won't be further back," he added. "If anything, we will be closer. We hope he goes a good mile and a half."
Jose Ortiz will be in the irons from post 10.
Trainer Todd Pletcher will have a pair of entrants looking to give him his fourth career Belmont Stakes win. Pletcher, who won his first in 2007 with filly Rags to Riches and also in 2012 with Palace Malice and 2017 with Tapwrit, will send out 10-1 Intrepid Heart and 15-1 Spinoff.
Owned by Lawan and Robert Low, the lightly raced Intrepid Heart won his first two starts before graduating to stakes company, running third in the Peter Pan.
Stabled at Belmont, Intrepid Heart has breezed twice on the main track since that race, including an official five-furlong work in 1:00.92 on Saturday. Pletcher said he was pleased by his gallop out, which he clocked in 1:38 3/5.
"We were pleased by the work and his gallop-out," Pletcher said. "He appears to be moving very well."
Hall of Famer John Velazquez will pilot Intrepid Heart from post 8.
Fellow Pletcher trainee Spinoff is coming off his only off-the-board appearance, running second-to-last in the Kentucky Derby. The runner-up in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby on March 23 at Fair Grounds will pick up the services of Hall of Fame rider Javier Castellano from post 6.
Bourbon Lane Stable and Lake Star Stable's Bourbon War will look to bounce back from an eighth-place finish in the Preakness. Trainer Mark Hennig said the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth runner-up in March at Gulfstream was feisty after the Triple Crown's middle jewel, and said he is looking for an improved effort as he makes his Belmont debut.
"He was not tired at all after the race," Hennig said. "I don't know how much running he actually did. I held him for a bath after the race and he bit me in the stomach and tore my shirt. He was actually angry after the Preakness."
For the Belmont, Hennig said Bourbon War will have the blinkers removed. He had added the equipment after Bourbon War's fourth-place effort behind Maximum Security, Bodexpress and Code of Honor in the Grade 1 Florida Derby on March 30.
Hall of Famer and three-time Belmont winner Mike Smith, who a year ago made history aboard the Triple Crown-winning Justify, will return to Belmont Park to ride, breaking from post 5 at 12-1.
"Put a line through the Preakness? Hopefully, that's the right thing to do," Hennig said.
Katsumi Yoshizawa's homebred Master Fencer adds international intrigue to the race in looking to become the first Japanese horse to capture an American Triple Crown race
Trained by 48-year-old former jockey Koichi Tsunoda, Master Fencer finished a rail-rallying seventh in the Derby and was elevated to sixth with the disqualification of Maximum Security.
He earned his spot in the starting gate for the "Run for the Roses" by accumulating 19 points on the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby following fast-closing second in the $310,830 Fukuryu at Nakayama Racecourse in March and a fourth-place effort in the $330,506 Hyacinth Stakes at Tokyo Racecourse in February.
Should he win, Master Fencer will collect a $1 million bonus offered by NYRA to a Japanese-based winner of the Belmont Stakes.
Julien Leparoux will ride Master Fencer, at odds of 8-1, from post 3.
Preakness runner-up Everfast, owned by Calumet Farm, has not won since his victorious career debut in August but has twice finished second in graded stakes, including one length behind Harvey Wallbanger in the Grade 2 Holy Bull in February at Gulfstream.
Trained by Dale Romans, Everfast at 12-1, drew post 2 with Luis Saez set to ride
"I would say going a mile-and-a-half, any horse can be where they want. They're going to be going so slowly early on," Romans said. "I just felt like in the Preakness, even though he was coming off of a sprint, he'd have a strong finishing kick and it looked like a lot of speed in the race. But I'll let the jockey figure it out in the Belmont.
"In the Belmont, by the time they get to the eighth pole, they are all tired," he added. "It is hard for a horse to kick. So, I would think he would be laying a little bit closer."
A pair of contenders familiar to New York racing fans complete the field, with Joevia giving trainer Gregory Sacco his first career starter in an American Classic. After being disqualified and placed 11th in the Wood Memorial, Joevia rebounded to win the Long Branch on May 12 at Monmouth Park. The Shanghai Bobby colt, at odds of 30-1, will have a new rider in Jose Lezcano, breaking from the inside post.
Tax, the Wood Memorial runner-up, will be making his first start since placing 14th in the Kentucky Derby. Trained by Danny Gargan, the winner of the Grade 3 Withers on February 2 at Aqueduct will make his first career start at Belmont, drawing post 4 at 15-1 odds with Irad Ortiz, Jr., who won the 2016 Belmont on Creator, taking the call.
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