War! What is it Good For?

Well, it’s good for a straight win bet, an exacta bet, or a trifecta bet. Those are all the ways you can possibly cash a big ticket in Saturday’s Travers Stakes if you play War Dancer, either by himself or with several of the leading contenders.

In a race where you have a legitimate shot with just about anyone, and are having a tough time separating Palace Malice, Verrazano, and Orb, or even Will Take Charge and Moreno, or the Kentucky Derby runner-up Golden Soul and the up-and-coming Darley pair of Transparent and Romansh, why not take a shot with one of the few horses in the field with an angle.

Yes, War Dancer has been a grass horse almost his entire career, but we all know about the grass to dirt angle. And we all know about betting a horse who has done something most of the others haven’t – win at the distance. And we all know how dangerous trainer Kenny McPeek can be, especially after his dead-heat score in last year’s Travers with 33-1 shot Golden Ticket.

And here’s another angle. Declaration of War, who like War Dancer is a son of War Front, won Wednesday’s Juddmonte International at York at 1 1/4 miles. And both Declaration of War and War Dancer are inbred 4x5 to Nijinsky, so their pedigrees are pretty similar.

Yes, War Dancer has only one start on dirt and finished fourth, beaten six lengths, but that was only his second career start. Watching him actually cut to the inside and split the top two finishers after the wire, gave some indication that he was handling the dirt and simply got into his best stride too late.

In his next start, with first-time Lasix and first time on grass, he stalked the pace and drew clear to win by two lengths.

Then in an allowance race at Keeneland, he turned in one of the most impressive and electrifying performances of the year. Breaking from the rail, he flung his head in the air just as the gates opened and he broke so awkwardly, he literally twisted his head and body in all directions. For a horse who had been running close to the pace, he found himself dead last in the 12-horse field, 16 lengths off the pace. Even around the far turn, he still trailed the field, and it looked as if Alan Garcia was just letting him run around the track without asking too much of him, considering what he had had already been through.

But after passing the three-eighths pole, he gave the colt a nudge and he took off, splitting horses. Still a long ways back, he kept building up speed, then swung five wide turning for home and came flying down the stretch under left-handed whipping. It looked as if he was going to finish a fast-closing third, which would have been a sensational finish. But his acceleration in the final 50 yards was breathtaking, as he got up to win by a half-length. Track announcer Kurt Becker described it perfectly: “War Dancer. Unbelievable!”

He threw his ears up as soon as he hit the wire, and was so pumped from that wild run, Garcia had a tough time pulling him up.

In his next start, the American Turf at Churchill Downs, he was a bit overanxious early and didn’t settle as well as he should have. He still had plenty of run in the stretch, but was trapped behind a wall of horses. First, Garcia came out several paths looking for room, found nothing, and steered him back from the seven-path to the inside, where he finally found an opening near the rail. Despite having run sideways most of the stretch run, he was still a strong horse and closed fast, but the winner, Noble Tune, was already gone. He just missed catching Admiral Kitten, who last week won the grade I Secretariat Stakes. With it all, he still finished third, beaten 2 1/4 lengths.

In the Centaur Stakes at Indiana Downs, he was dropping back to a mile and ran into a fast horse named Free World, who beat him by two lengths in a swift 1:34 1/5. In defeat, he came home his final quarter in :23 3/5.

Then came the grade II Virginia Derby, stretching out to 1 1/4 miles. Sent off at 7-1 in the strong field, he accelerated beautifully around the turn and outfinished Todd Pletcher’s classy duo of Charming Kitten and Jack Milton with a final quarter in :24 2/5 over a course listed as good.

McPeek could have run him back in the Secretariat, but decided to try to catch lightning once again and go for the Travers.

As for War Dancer’s ability to handle dirt, he has been training sharply over the Oklahoma training track.

His sire, War Front, was strictly a dirt horse and a top-class sprinter, winning the Alfred G. Vanderbilt and placing in the Vosburgh, Forego, and Tom Fool. War Front is by Danzig, out of a Rubiano mare, so there is plenty of dirt breeding there. Rubiano is a son of Fappiano, which brings us back to the John Nerud influence and the Dr. Fager line.

War Dancer’s dam, Deed I Do, placed in the Astoria and Bonnie Miss Stakes on dirt, and her sire, Alydeed, won the Queens Plate at 1 1/4 miles on the dirt, as well as the Carter, Derby Trial, Commonwealth Breeders’ Cup, and Plate Trial Stakes, and finished second in the Preakness and Prince of Wales and third in the Met Mile. So he was a pure dirt horse who excelled at all distances from seven furlongs to 1 1/4 miles.

Alydeed’s sire is Shadeed, winner of the 2,000 Guineas, but this is a strong dirt family, as Shadeed’s broodmare sire is Damascus, and Alydeed’s broodmare sire is Alydar.

On the tail-female side, War Dancer’s second dam is by Silver Hawk, who was second in the Irish Derby and third in the English Derby, and who sired English Derby winner Benny the Dip. Silver Hawk is the sire of Hawkster, who set a world record for 1 1/2 miles on the grass, and who is the broodmare sire of Preakness and Belmont winner Afleet Alex.

Silver Hawek’s sire, Roberto, has made an impact on the dirt through his sons Dynaformer, Red Ransom, and Darby Creek Road.

As is the case with Transparent, who we wrote about last week, War Dancer has the 1967 Woodward trio of Hall of Famers, Damascus, Dr. Fager, and Buckpasser, in his pedigree.

Now, does all this mean War Dancer is going to win the Travers? Not in a field this tough and deep. But it does indicate he has a legitimate shot at an upset or to hit the board. If he’s unable to handle this group it’s not going to be a shock by any means. But as we said, it’s at least an angle, and offers an intriguing alternative to the top colts we’ve been following all year.

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