War Decree may not have the resume of Aidan O’Brien’s other Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) candidate, Churchill, but his raw talent should not be underestimated. Once an exciting juvenile who was nominated to the U.S. Triple Crown, the Kentucky-bred has the look of an under-the-radar type with untapped potential.

By War Front and out of a Street Cry mare, War Decree has a pedigree hinting at surface versatility. His immediate family is more turf-oriented, with his second dam being multiple Grade 1-winning millionaire Ticker Tape. Further back, his sixth dam is the brilliant Terlingua, who counts the 1978 Del Mar Debutante (G2) among her trio of major wins at two. Now Terlingua is best known for producing 1985 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) near-misser and outstanding sire Storm Cat.

War Decree, an Andrew Rosen homebred co-owned by the Coolmore partners, wasted no time in stamping himself as one to watch. Favored at 2-1 in his debut at Leopardstown (click link for replay), he made a good sustained run on the turn and down the length of stretch to mow down Orderofthegarter. There was a five-length gap to third. Orderofthegarter, subsequently second to Cliffs of Moher (a Breeders’ Cup Turf [G1] pre-entrant whose international profile is forthcoming), developed into a Group-class performer this term. The winner of the Leopardstown 2000 Guineas Trial in April, Orderofthegarter was also a close second in the Hampton Court (G3) at Royal Ascot.

But long before Orderofthegarter came good, War Decree was emerging as a hot prospect last summer. Withdrawn from the Railway (G2) (off his feed, per irishracing.com), he was rerouted to Newmarket for the Superlative (G2). In his first start on a straightaway, War Decree traveled well, then got briefly outkicked by Boynton. But he responded to his rival’s sudden move, and appeared to have him collared, only to run out of steam in the final yards.

The impression was that a rematch might yield different result, and so it proved in the Vintage (G2) at Glorious Goodwood. To be fair to Boynton, he was carrying a three-pound penalty thanks to his Superlative score, and he was buffeted in a messy race. Still, War Decree was so authoritative that he likely improved beyond Boynton by that point. Note that the Vintage runner-up was Thunder Snow, an eventual multiple Group 1 winner (and Kentucky Derby bucking bronco).

“He’s improved a great deal from Newmarket and is a very well-balanced, good-moving horse,” jockey Ryan Moore said following the Vintage. “He’s still green and had a look when he got there, so I’d say he’ll improve. Inexperience cost him the last day and Aidan’s horses always seem to progress – he certainly has.”

War Decree wasn’t sighted again as a juvenile, evoking a superficial comparison to another Vintage hero whom O’Brien put away for the season. A certain Highland Reel.

Although the Kentucky Derby trail loomed as a possible option after his Triple Crown nomination, War Decree was instead pointed to the European classics. He was dispatched as the 9-4 favorite in his reappearance in the April 20 Craven (G3) at Newmarket, where he faded to sixth in the worst effort of his life.

War Decree turned in a better performance in the Prix du Jockey Club (French Derby) (G1), if still not quite up to snuff. A bit sluggish into stride and further back in the pack, he showed greenness again once tipped out wide for the stretch run. He couldn’t accelerate as sharply as the victorious Brametot, but stayed on well late to snatch fifth from his old maiden foe Orderofthegarter. War Decree shaped more like a galloper with cruising speed who needs to be forward, rather than a late-burst turfiste.

 

Initially reported as a contender for the Belmont Derby Invitational (G1), War Decree’s stateside flirtation was again shelved. He ended up taking the whole summer off and resumed in the September 29 Diamond (G3) over Dundalk’s Polytrack.

War Decree employed the stalking style that suits him, and cantered all over them in the straight. Watch how easily he advances under a chilly Donnacha O’Brien, with an action that strikes me as fluent for dirt:

It goes without saying that this wasn’t the deepest race. The useful females Absolute Blast (a synthetic specialist) and 7-4 favorite Abingdon (multiple Group 2-placed for Sir Michael Stoute) finished second and third, but War Decree would need to raise his game to cope with a superior Breeders’ Cup Classic field.

Nevertheless, his placement in the Diamond was tantalizing, given O’Brien’s use of the Dundalk feature for both Mastercraftsman (the beaten favorite in the 2009 Dirt Mile [G1]) and Declaration of War (a titanic third in the 2013 Classic, the year after his Diamond victory), himself by War Front. To me, it bespeaks a seriousness of intent, a plan of longer gestation to pitch War Decree into the Breeders’ Cup. And he’s entitled to move forward substantially in his second start back from the layoff.

Cross-entered to the Dirt Mile as his second preference, War Decree could theoretically go there. But I’m not sure that he’d be able to get into a comfortable rhythm in a mile where they won’t be hanging around. The Classic is obviously tougher, but he’d likely have a better chance of doing himself justice over 1 1/4 miles.

Aside from the inherent challenge of tackling the world’s elite dirt horses, War Decree is also up against his own relative inexperience. O’Brien’s come closest in the Classic with battle-tested warriors in Giant’s Causeway (2000) and Declaration of War, but War Decree is taking this searing test in just his seventh lifetime start. As a longtime fan of this intriguing colt, I’m hopeful that the sophomore can run well – dare I say hit the board – and come back as a more street-wise older horse for the 2018 Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs.

War Decree photo courtesy Goodwood via Twitter