Day in the life of a Kentucky Derby horse: Workouts, peppermints and a bath

It's a really big week for Kentucky Derby contender War of Will, but trainer Mark Casse is careful not to let "WoW" get overwhelmed. That's the nickname for the 3-year-old who will get his once-in-a-lifetime shot at major stardom Saturday in the Run for the Roses.  

Like any teenager, his guardian doesn't want the excitement of it all to go to WoW's head.

"He gets more peppermints than other horses; he'll have more visitors," Casse says. But "we're really not doing anything we don't do for any horse."

The last thing a trainer wants to do is rattle a horse's routine before a big race — and this is the biggest. So they try to go about their business as usual.

WoW's morning starts quietly, with barn workers raking and moving around his darkened stall. A sheriff's employee stays nearby, keeping an eye on the contender 24/7.

Come sunrise, however, the Derby horse is the star of his stable. No matter his odds, no matter his pedigree, he'll receive visitors who linger outside his temporary home, taking pictures that they hope they can point to one day, recounting the time they saw the horse before he was a champion.

A typical morning in Casse's barn goes like this: A horse's legs are inspected to see if anything has changed overnight, such as swelling in the ankles or knees. The horse then jogs in front of Casse, who is watching to see if its head stays level. If a horse's head jerks to one side or is lifted a little higher, that could be sign of a problem.

Kentucky Derby hopeful War of Will reacts as a blanket is placed on him following a bath. (Photo: By Pat McDonogh, Courier Journal)

He and his assistant trainers repeat the process for every horse in the care of Casse Racing — a number that stands at about 120.

"What we're looking at is making sure, before we go out on the track, that they're OK," Casse says. "… It doesn't necessarily have to be a real serious injury. But even if you keep them from a minor injury, it's very important."

Five or six people will handle WoW throughout the day, including assistant trainer Allen Hardy, barn foreman Omar Sanchez, exercise rider Jose Vargas and groom Hector Gonzalez, standing in for War of Will's usual groom, Chuck Granados.

It sounds a lot like the life of a supermodel, minus the glitz and glamour. 

"We have a lot of wonderful people that work for us," Casse says. "… People don't realize it in the outside world, but it's like they all have their own butlers and they have their own maids who take care of them."

Around 7 a.m., Sanchez starts warming up WoW for the track, walking him in circles around the barn. Then it's on to the morning workout, where he'll train alongside other Derby and Oaks contenders. 

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The sun is rising now, the sky a shade of lavender, and people have already started gathering to get a look at the potential Derby winner.

Casse has decided to let WoW gallop twice around the dirt track, then practice standing in a starting gate — something he needs to get reacquainted with before the big race.

Standing on the guard rail, Casse uses binoculars to keep an eye on War of Will.

"Here we come," he says as the horse rounds the back half of the first turn.

"He loves his job," Casse adds, following WoW as he grunts down the stretch.

Back in the barn, War of Will cools down with more laps. He doesn't get a spa treatment, but he does get a bath in his stall (since he misbehaves when bathing outside). Much of the day will be spent in his stall, where he frequently peeks his head out to see what else is going on. He's a feisty horse who's prone to biting. But he'll also occasionally take naps with workers in his stable.

In the afternoon, he'll practice walking through the paddock, where jockeys saddle and mount their horses before a race.

It's the same routine Casse would use for any horse. 

But this isn't any horse or any day. If he wins the Derby, he stands to earn more than $20 million for his owners and the team that trained him. There's a lot at stake, and while much is the same for all of the horses, everything is also different. 

What changes after Saturday is anyone's guess.

Bailey Loosemore: 502-582-4646; [email protected]; Twitter: @bloosemore. 

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