By Lynne Snierson
Once again, War Story will be deployed to take on the challenge of trying to win the first Grade 1 race of a career that has seen the durable 7-year-old gelding earn close to $3 million from 35 starts at 15 different tracks for nine different trainers.
This time, he’s back for the $1 million TVG Pacific Classic (G1) on Saturday, his second try at the premier race of the Del Mar summer season. In 2016, War Story finished seventh behind two-time Horse of the Year California Chrome. The Pacific Classic will be the chestnut’s 11th start in a Grade 1.
War Story began his career with two victories, the first on Nov. 1, 2014 in a maiden special weights at Churchill Downs, the second on Dec. 28, 2014 at the Fair Grounds. He’s posted just five victories since but has bagged some big bucks from a bunch of really rich races, such as the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) at Del Mar — he was fourth, earning $300,000.
As the only member of 2015 Triple Crown champion American Pharoah’s sophomore class still running, it’s impressive to see War Story continue to compete, let alone at the top level. And why not the Pacific Classic, a “Win and You’re In” race that carries an automatic berth into the BC Classic at Santa Anita on Nov. 2.
A son of Northern Afleet, who is known for siring horses with the will to soldier on, especially as they age, War Story is out of the Pulpit mare Belle Watling. She is the namesake of the owner and madam of the brothel frequented by Rhett Butler in the novel and movie “Gone with the Wind.” Is it any wonder War Story comes by his grittiness naturally?
“That’s how I look at it,” said Glenn Ellis, who owns the horse with Imaginary Stables and will be at Del Mar with a big crowd of family and friends. “I think that because we took such good care of him over the winter, giving him five months off, he’s ready to put on his best show ever on Saturday.”
War Story has raced coast-to-coast, from Saratoga to Santa Anita, and has collected seven wins, six seconds and five thirds. His earnings stand at $2,885,305. And he’s done it the hard way. He’s not hit the board in two previous starts at Del Mar, or at the 1 ¼-mile distance of the Pacific Classic in five tries. But he did rack up a career-best Beyer speed figure (112) in that fourth-place finish in the 2017 BC Classic won by Gun Runner, the eventual Horse of the Year.
He’s also taken on champion Arrogate, running eighth in the 2016 BC Classic and fifth in the 2017 Pegasus World Cup Invitational (G1). And he was in the field at the 2015 Kentucky Derby, finishing 16th, when American Pharoah began his Triple Crown campaign.
“I don’t see the top competition out there anymore because Gun Runner, Arrogate, California Chrome, Beholder, American Pharoah … there aren’t horses like that anymore,’’ said Ellis. “I think that’s why you’re seeing weaker fields in the Pacific Classic and possibly the Breeders’ Cup races.’’
Seeking the Soul is the slight 3-1 favorite for the Pacific Classic, which drew a field of 10. War Story is 8-1, but Ellis thinks it might be time for another victory.
“He ran his best career race at Del Mar in that Breeders’ Cup race and I expect a repeat performance Saturday,’’ said Ellis. “He ran that 112 Beyer, and I believe that will win this race by maybe 10 lengths. We’re feeling very good about this race.”
Plus, War Story won his most recent race, the Monmouth Cup (G3) at Monmouth Park on July 20.
Should War Story prevail on Saturday, he would become the oldest Pacific Classic winner. But a retirement home is not in his immediate future.
“The horse couldn’t be doing any better or be happier. He’s very healthy,” said Ellis. “We do expect to win on Saturday. We’re extremely confident. If you look at this field it’s one of easiest he’s faced in the last several years, especially for a million dollars.”
The BC Classic, with a purse of $6 million, is still 11 weeks away but very much on the drawing board.
“That’s why we went with Tiago Pereira for this race,’’ said Ellis. “He’s a great jockey out at Del Mar and Santa Anita and if we give him the mount now, we’ll know who our jockey will be for the Classic come November because this race is a ‘Win and You’re In.’ We’re all very confident.”
Lynne Snierson, a former director of communications at Arlington Park and Rockingham Park, currently is a freelance writer and racing publicist. She covered thoroughbred racing as an award-winning sportswriter for newspapers In Boston, Miami, and St. Louis. She lives in New Hampshire. Secretariat remains her all-time favorite horse.