Many in the betting public figured the conclusion of the $500,000 Flower Bowl Stakes (G1T) Oct. 8 would feature an appearance in the winner's circle from a distaffer who began her career overseas. While that basic premise proved correct, the filly accepting the post-race accolades was somewhat of a surprise.
In her fourth North American start and first try against top-level company, 9-1 shot War Flag added to the depth of the female turf division when she caught race favorite Grand Jete in late stretch and then held off grade 1 winner Dacita by a head to prevail in the 1 1/4-mile Flower Bowl at Belmont Park.
With Zhukova besting males in the Man o' War Stakes (G1T) in her U.S. debut in June and Grand Jete—who began her career in France—coming off a runner-up finish in the Beverly D. Stakes (G1T), a slugfest between those two figured to materialize over the firm Belmont course. It was an expectation lived up to its billing in the early going. Even-money choice Grand Jete carved out fractions of :24.76 and :49.24 for a half-mile as 8-5 favorite Zhukova put pressure on her from the two-path down the backside.
War Flag had a great view of that showdown, as she rated a couple lengths back in third under Jose Ortiz. When the top duo reached the far turn, War Flag began her sustained surge three-wide and had dead aim on Grand Jete as they settled in for the stretch run. She eventually fought past that one to her inside and turned back Dacita at the wire to earn herself a fees-paid berth into the 1 1/8-mile Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1T) at Del Mar.
"I would think (we'd go to the Breeders' Cup)," said winning trainer Shug McGaughey. "I have never been to Del Mar, so I can't comment on the turf course out there, but I think she'd probably like the California turf course, you know, the way they get over the ground the way they do.
"She's got some tactical speed. We saw today where she can kind of be up in the race. Hopefully she will come out of it good and we will be able to make the trip."
Owned and bred by Joseph Allen, War Flag made her first five starts in France, where she won the Prix Chloe (G3) at Chantilly in July of 2016. She didn't race again until resurfacing at Monmouth Park in June, when she won an allowance test prior to her runner-up effort in the WinStar Matchmaker Stakes (G3T) in July.
One of the horses she finished ahead of that day was multiple grade 1 winner Miss Temple City. Though she finished third next time out in the Glens Falls Stakes (G3T), McGaughey said signs of the 4-year-old filly's progression were there.
"You know, from the Glens Falls to here, she came into the race really well," the Hall of Fame trainer said. "So, we were confident that she would run a good race. Whether it was good enough or not, you never know."
War Flag's game rally allowed her to hit the wire in 2:00.26, edging out Dacita, with Grand Jete a length back in third. Beauly came in fourth, with Guilty Twelve fifth, and Zhukova last in the six-horse field.
"I saved as much ground as I could, and when it was time to move at the three-eighths pole, the two horses in front of me and Dacita were the ones I had to beat and I saw (Zhukova) tapping on the shoulder already, so I knew he didn't have horse," Ortiz said. "I knew I had to keep the pressure on Grand Jete, and I made my move, and thankfully we got there."
War Flag paid $21.20, $7, and $3.50 across the board and improved her record to five wins from nine starts with $454,660 in earnings. She is out of the Arch mare Black Speck and is a full sister to group 1 winner Lines of Battle.