War of Will makes his return to the races Saturday in Gulfstream Park's $75,000 Sunshine Forever Stakes, a 1 1/16-mile turf race for older horses. The reigning Preakness Stakes champion last appeared in the Breeders’ Cup Classic when fading to ninth after setting the pace to cap off a disappointing second half of 2019.
There are three betting strikes against the biggest name in this field, however, as he starts anew on grass.
For one, War of Will lacks one turf victory in four tries in his career. Granted, War of Will was runner-up in the 2018 Summer Stakes (G1), fourth in the Bourbon Stakes (G3) and fifth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf. Still, they were defeats, and this is an above-average overnight stakes field with multiple graded winners on turf against him.
His expected low odds count as the second strike. War of Will is 10-1 on the morning line, which looks unrealistic at first glance. The name recognition alone as a Preakness Stakes winner should drop him into the single digits.
In 2019, the only two times War of Will ran at double-digit odds came in the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic, two “super” Grade 1 races with generous odds on several good horses. This is a much lower class level.
Expect 3-1 or less on the most popular horse in the race. For some bettors, that might count as "value." But eating a low price on a horse without a prior turf stakes victory against good horses does not sound logical.
For a third strike, War of Will is coming off a 189-day layoff for trainer Mark Casse, and he likely has bigger goals in mind for his three-time graded stakes winner. War of Will could still win this race on talent, but there is no incentive for Casse to fully crank him up. From a logical standpoint, he will enter this race at 80 or 90 percent fit.
Essentially, War of Will is the kind of horse to play against.
One possible upset option is Aquaphobia, who turned in an even fourth in the Muniz Memorial Classic (G2) at Fair Grounds in March. He lost by 4 ¾ lengths.
Aquaphobia did not experience any major traffic issues in the Muniz Memorial. The 7-year-old horse saved ground throughout the race and tipped out in the stretch run. He could not quicken enough, though, as Factor This won by three lengths.
However, take a second look at the horses Aquaphobia beat in that race, including Synchrony, Instilled Regard, Channel Maker, Henley’s Joy and Dot Matrix. His even finish was a result of stiff competition rather than a poor effort.
In his debut race for trainer Michael Maker, Aquaphobia won the Starter Stakes at Gulfstream on Feb. 17 by 1 ¼ lengths. The runner-up Muggsamatic previously ran a strong second to March to the Arch in the Sunshine Millions Turf Stakes.
After getting claimed by Maker three starts ago, it looks like Aquaphobia has moved forward. As further proof, his two most-recent TimeformUS Speed Figures of 118 and 120 are higher than any number he earned in 2019.
Aquaphobia also gets the services of Irad Ortiz Jr. According to TimeformUS, the Ortiz/Maker combination hits at a 28 percent clip.
From an inside post, Aquaphobia can save ground right behind El Tormenta, Halladay and War of Will. He only needs to find room to tip out again, and this time he might get the job done. In any case, he is worth a shot at 10-1 odds.
Social Paranoia took advantage of a pace meltdown to win the local Appleton Stakes (G3). But he always runs well regardless of the setup.
Last year, Social Paranoia capped off a successful campaign by winning the Dueling Grounds Derby at Kentucky Downs in September. He also earned a runner-up finish in the Belmont Derby (G1), third place in the American Turf Stakes (G3) and Pennine Ridge Stakes (G3) and fourth in the Saratoga Derby Invitational.
Social Paranoia did not run worse than fourth in six 2019 starts. He also used more tactical speed in those races, as opposed to his deep-closing style in the Appleton.
Fast pace or not, Social Paranoia is a major contender.
As for Halladay, he won a local allowance optional claimer on April 4 by three lengths after getting an uncontested lead. For the win, TimeformUS gave him a career-high 126 figure. If Halladay repeats that number in this ungraded turf stakes, he's a likely winner.
With Halladay, the concern is that he cannot adapt to a fast pace scenario like Social Paranoia. This horse wants to lead the field or contest the lead with other horses. Considering War of Will and El Tormenta both bring speed to the table, one or both of them may compromise the chances of Halladay in the early stages.
But if one or both of those speed horses fail to challenge Halladay early, he could slip clear again. Just in case the pace is slower than expected, he deserves a spot on tickets.
Aquaphobia is the main value play, while Social Paranoia and Halladay are logical options to use alongside him in multi-race tickets. War of Will could win too, but keep in mind the goals of this horse and whether he will bring his “A” game. With bigger contests on the horizon, the connections won't mind losing this ungraded stakes race.