War of Will jumped to the top of the Kentucky Derby standings with an emphatic victory in the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds, highlighting a big weekend of Derby and Oaks preps from coast to coast.
War of Will, known to trainer Mark Casse as "WOW," overcame a wide post position to win Saturday's $400,000 Grade II Risen Star with ease at Fair Grounds, earning 50 points toward a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate.
With Tyler Gaffalione in the irons, the War Front colt quickly crossed over to take position right behind the early leader. When prompted, he hit the front at the top of the long New Orleans stretch and held on to win by 2 1/4 lengths. Country House wandered a bit in the final furlong but got home second with Roiland third. War of Will finished 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.59.
War of Will has a solid turf pedigree and that's where Casse started him. But after four also-ran finishes, including a fifth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf, it was on to the main track and he quickly ran off two straight wins, including the Lecomte at Fair Grounds, before Saturday's tour de force.
"I've trained a lot of good horses," said Casse, who earlier in the week was named a finalist in this year's Hall of Fame balloting. "He's one of the best."
Casse said it's likely War of Will will move along to the Louisiana Derby March 23 even though the now has enough Kentucky Derby points to guarantee a start in the Run for the Roses. "You know me. I like to run," he said. "I think it's important to him. Like I said to [owner] Gary Barber when he drew the outside post, this will be good for him down the road."
Added to the 10 points he scored with a win in the Lecomte, War of Will's 50 points for Saturday's win vaulted him to the top of the Road to the Kentucky Derby standings, relegating to second place the 2-year-old champ, Game winner, who has yet to make his 2019 debut.
Trainer Bob Baffert entered Kingly in both the Risen Star and the El Camino Real Derby on the Golden Gate Fields all-weather course and ultimately opted for the shorter trip. But Kingly, a Tapit colt, settled for second, 7 lengths behind the favorite, Anothertwistafate. The winner, a Scat Daddy colt, led from the start and won handily under Juan Hernandez, finishing the 1 1/8 miles in 1:50.38. Anothertwistafate now has three straight wins, all at Golden Gate. Kingly has a maiden win and two seconds.
On Friday night at Turfway Park, Somelikeithotbrown also transitioned from the grass, where he finished third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf, to the all-weather surface. The Big Brown colt, with Rafael Hernandez aboard, slipped through an inside hole entering the stretch run of Friday night's $75,000 John Battaglia Memorial and ran on to win by 3 1/2 lengths.
Dynamic Racer and Dabo filled the trifecta while The Mackem Bullet, most likely destined for a trip back across the Atlantic for trainer Wesley Ward, settled for third with no late punch. Somelikeithotbrown, trained by Mike Maker, got 1 1/16 miles in 1:45.86. The race was delayed a week because of bad weather.
"I wanted to get him to relax," Hernandez said of Somelikeithotbrown. "He'd had three months off so I knew he would try to show me some speed. The only way I could get him to relax was to get him behind horses. He just exploded down the stretch." The Battaglia is a prep for the Jeff Ruby Steaks, Turfway Park's March 9 Kentucky Derby points race.
At Laurel Park in Maryland, Alwaysmining led all the way to his fourth consecutive win in Saturday's $100,000 Miracle Wood Stakes. With Daniel Centeno up, the Stay Thirsty gelding was allowed to set a comfortable pace and was never threatened, finishing 1 mile on a fast track in 1:35.27. Winning trainer Kelly Rubley called Alwaysmining's victory "encouraging" and said she will meet with ownership to decide his next start. The Miracle Wood is named after the Maryland-bred who finished fifth in the 1986 Preakness.
And in Arizona, Senor Friday was along late to capture Saturday's $50,000 Turf Paradise Derby, winning by 2 1/4 lengths with Parking Permit best of the rest. Senor Friday, a Kentucky-bred Curlin gelding, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.44 with Francisco Arietta in the irons. He's won four of his last five starts.
See the International roundup for a recap of the third leg of the "Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby," which was far from decisive.
The Road to the Roses passes through Arkansas on Monday's President's Day card. A full field is in prospect with Sueno and Gray Attempt lukewarm co-favorites at 7-2 on the morning line. And at Santa Anita, California-bred 3-year-olds will get a chance to move forward in the California Cup Derby.
Kentucky Oaks preps
Serengeti Empress, making her first start since finishing seventh in the Breeders' Cup, romped home first in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Rachel Alexandra Stakes at Fair Grounds after leading all the way. The Alternation filly, with James Graham in the irons, reported 4 1/2 lengths in front of runner-up Liora. Eres Tu was third. Serengeti Empress finished the 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.74.
Before the Breeders' Cup disappointment, Serengeti Empress won the Grade II Pocahontas at Churchill Downs by 19 1/2 lengths and the Ellis Park Debutante by 13 1/2 lengths.
"She is very naturally quick and that helps her cause a great deal," said winning trainer Tom Amoss. "Certainly this racetrack helped her cause. Having said that, I think that was a really good performance by a filly that a lot of people questioned whether she legitimately wanted to go a lot of ground. She took it to them today right out of the gate and it was fun to watch."
Amoss said the $400,000 Grade II $400,000 Fair Grounds Oaks is up next for Serengeti Empress.
In Maryland, Las Setas, fresh off her maiden win, led all the way to a 5 1/2-lengths upset win in Saturday's $100,000 Wide Country Stakes at Laurel Park. The favorite, Our Super Freak, settled for second, 1 length in front of Crafty's Dream. Las Setas, a daughter of the German-bred sire Seville, got 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:22.99 with Jevian Toledo up.
"This filly has shown an awful lot of ability," winning trainer Katherine Voss said. "The race, the timing and the distance were perfect for her."