by TERESA GENARO
In the $500,000 Flower Bowl (G1) at Belmont Park on Sunday, Kentucky-bred War Flag needed both every step of the stretch and for the wire to come just when it did to earn her first Grade 1 victory.
Racing closer to the pace than she has in two of her last three races, War Flag and José Ortiz sat in third along the rail, several lengths off the pace-setting even-money favorite Grand Jete. Starting to move coming around the final turn of the 10-furlong race on a firm inner turf course, the Joseph Allen homebred had no trouble gaining on the front runner, but Grand Jete resisted stubbornly, refusing to cede the lead until the final strides, when the 9-1 War Flag had just enough to hold off the closing Dacita to win by a head. Irish shipper Zhukova, who attended the pace early, retreated to last in the six-horse field.
“[Trainer] Shug [McGaughey] told me to ride it like it comes up,” said Ortiz. “If she’s on the lead, she’s on the lead; if she’s second, she’s second; if she’s third, she’s third.
“I was surrounded by [Grand Jete and Dacita]. My filly ran hard in the last sixteenth; she pinched her ears and just kept trying and thank God she hit the wire first.”
“She grinded it out,” said McGaughey. “She had a really good trip. We didn’t really know what was going to happen. I kind of misjudged it. I thought maybe [Beauly] would go with the blinkers on. I just told [José] to ride his race.”
Out of the Arch mare Black Speck, War Flag is a third-generation homebred for Allen, who also bred and campaigned War Flag’s sire War Front, who stands at Claiborne for $250,000.
“I still own a large piece of him, and I think he’s won of the best stallions in the world,” said Allen.
War Flag began her career in France, compiling three wins, one of them in the Prix Chloé (G3) at Chantilly, and two seconds in five starts. Allen and his wife Annette brought her back to the States after she was injured there, and she made her first U.S. start at Monmouth in June, winning by a half-length. She was then second in the Matchmaker (G3) at Monmouth and third in the Glens Falls (G3) at Saratoga in early September.
“Monmouth and even Saratoga were difficult for her,” said her owner. “The turf is so hard, and the turns are so tight. “I was happy to see Belmont’s wide turns and long stretch.”
Now four, War Flag was off for a nearly a year before making her Stateside début this summer, and Allen credits McGaughey for the filly’s success.
“Shug did a sensational job,” he said. “He took his time with her. He got her racing fit, and it showed today.”
Allen and McGaughey have been pointing all year to the Flower Bowl, a “Win and You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1), but the filly’s injury put those plans in doubt.
“Everybody has plans in this business, and everything goes wrong,” said Allen. “It’s so hard to plan in advance. She got a late start, and we had to find spots for her, but nothing came up right.
“Today, this just worked. It just really, really worked.”