02/25/2015 1:40PM

The Great War finds his battleground at Turfway

Coady Photgraphy
The Great War is training at Turfway Park, where he won the 96Rock Stakes on Jan. 31.

For The Great War, the road to the Kentucky Derby requires snow tires.

Rather than decamp to south Florida for his Derby preps, The Great War was purposely kept in the cold climes of Kentucky, where trainer Wesley Ward keeps 20 of his runners during the winter. The move was a strategic one, both to give The Great War an easier path to his final Derby prep and to keep him in an environment more in line with what he was used to in Ireland, where he was based last year.

The Great War now trains at Keeneland and has been racing at Turfway Park, where he won last month’s 96Rock Stakes and where on Saturday he will compete in the $125,000 John Battaglia Memorial.

:: ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY: Prep races, point standings, replays

“Turfway has a wonderful schedule,” Ward said this week by phone. “He made most of his starts last year on grass but trained the majority of the time on synthetic, and Turfway has Polytrack.”

It’s an unusual path, but Ward has proven over the years that he can be wise without being conventional. He has boldly taken on Royal Ascot with a great deal of success in recent years and thinks nothing of having a horse whose campaign includes stops at Presque Isle Downs, Belmont Park, Royal Ascot, Del Mar, and Santa Anita, the itinerary of the 2-year-old filly Sunset Glow last year.

What makes The Great War an enticing prospect for the May 2 Kentucky Derby is that the one time he ran on dirt and around two turns, he was fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile behind Texas Red, Carpe Diem, and Upstart.

At the time, he was part of Aidan O’Brien’s powerhouse stable. But a month after the Breeders’ Cup, The Great War was sent to Ward by his owners, Michael Tabor, Derrick Smith, John Magnier, and Joe Allen, who paid $1 million for The Great War at auction as a yearling. Ward trained and co-owned No Nay Never with Tabor, Smith, and Magnier. No Nay Never was retired to stud after finishing second in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint.

:: DERBY WATCH: Top 20 list | Kentucky Derby: Who's hot, who's not

“I think they felt a little bad when they retired No Nay Never,” Ward said. “They didn’t have to give me another horse, but I’m thankful they did. They were very generous.”

Ward pointed out that because of quarantine restrictions, The Great War had to go back to Ireland after the Breeders’ Cup.

“When he came back over here, he did his quarantine at Arlington,” Ward said. “Then he came to me at Keeneland, so I thought, ‘Why not keep him in a cold-weather climate?’ ”

Ward admitted that the weather wasn’t the only thing hot in Florida.

“If you go down there, you’re going to catch every top Eastern-based 3-year-old,” he said. “You’ve got to be at your best every time. This looked like an easier route with a very nice horse.”

By racing at Turfway, though, The Great War is likely to get just one chance this spring at earning points toward a Derby berth, that coming in the Grade 3, $550,000 Spiral Stakes on March 21.

Ward is using jockey Albin Jimenez on The Great War. Jimenez is the leading rider at Turfway but hardly a household name.

“Turfway’s a funny track to ride,” Ward said. “He works the horse, and he knows the track. A lot of guys have a lot of talent but don’t get a lot of opportunities.”

Ward could say the same thing about himself with Derby prospects. This is his opportunity.

Imperia possible for Spiral

If The Great War advances to the Spiral, one of his challengers could be Imperia, who finished fifth as the favorite last Saturday in the Risen Star at Fair Grounds. His trainer, Kiaran McLaughlin, on Wednesday said the Spiral was a possible next option for Imperia.

After making three starts on turf last year to begin his career, Imperia finished second in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs in his first try on dirt. The Risen Star was his second start on dirt. He was ridden in the Risen Star by Mike Smith.

“Mike said he struggled with the track, that he was ‘swimming,’ ” McLaughlin said. “Maybe he’s a turf horse who likes Churchill Downs, like some turf horses do. The Spiral is possible. If he runs there, he’d have to run one-two to go on to the Derby. If not that, he might go back to the turf and point for the Belmont Derby.”

McLaughlin added that possible options for Frosted, fourth in the Fountain of Youth on Saturday, include the Florida Derby on March 28 or either the Wood Memorial or Blue Grass one week later.

McLaughlin said final decisions on where both horses go will be made in consultation with Jimmy Bell, who oversees the U.S.-based interests of owner Godolphin Racing.