Like big sister Roly Poly, U S Navy Flag has not only stood up to a busy campaign, but positively blossomed the more that trainer Aidan O’Brien has asked of him. By ending his European season with a rare Middle Park (G1)/Dewhurst (G1) double, the War Front colt has earned an ambitious crack on the dirt in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1).
U S Navy Flag’s pedigree, superb for turf, doesn’t promise a great deal on the American main track. Sire War Front can get a good dirt horse with help from the right mare, but U S Navy Flag’s dam likely reinforces the turf angle herself. He’s out of four-time Group 1 vixen Misty for Me, a daughter of pre-eminent turf influence Galileo. Further back, he descends from Broodmare of the Year Anne Campbell, dam of Kentucky Derby (G1) runners-up Desert Wine (1983) and Menifee (1999). But the intervening generations are characterized by turf success, notably with juvenile stars Fasliyev and Ballydoyle.
While U S Navy Flag does have an aggressively forward running style that could theoretically transfer to dirt, he faces the simultaneous challenge of stretching out and carrying his high speed around two turns. O’Brien’s only Juvenile winner, the transatlantic champion Johannesburg, passed his dirt test around the one-turn 1 1/16 miles at Belmont Park.
If Johannesburg was a budding star from day one, U S Navy Flag has taken time to build steam. He was unveiled in a May 1 five-furlong dash at Naas (click link for replay), where stablemate Dali was odds-on. The market proved accurate about the result, with second-time starter Dali knowing his job and U S Navy Flag a bit green in fourth.
That was clearly an educational run, but he needed additional tutorials as he stepped up to six furlongs. Wheeling back 12 days later as the favorite at the Curragh, U S Navy Flag was into the game early when pressing the pace, only to drop back to third. O’Brien sent him into a listed stakes two weeks later, the Marble Hill, and U S Navy Flag set the pace before tiring on the rain-softened going. Although he was a well-beaten third, stablemate Sioux Nation – who’d win the Norfolk (G2) and Phoenix (G1) in his next two – was a slow-starting sixth.
U S Navy Flag, despite being a thrice-raced maiden who’d yet to make the exacta, was part of Ballydoyle’s Royal Ascot squad. He tried the Coventry (G2) as a 33-1 shot, found it all beyond him, and wound up 14th of 18.
O’Brien fitted him with blinkers and returned him to maiden company at the Curragh July 1, and U S Navy Flag was now ready to roll. Opening up on the front end by 3 1/2 lengths, he looked stronger the farther he went.
Back to Britain 12 days later for the July (G2) at Newmarket, U S Navy Flag was cool in the market at 10-1, but belied his odds. He set a pressured pace, beat off favorite (and reliable yardstick) Invincible Army, and dug in against Cardsharp before that Mark Johnston veteran wore him down late. Rajasinghe, the Coventry winner and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) contender, was only third (carrying three pounds extra).
The Mark Johnston-trained Cardsharp wins the Arqana July Stakes in game fashion under James Doyle. pic.twitter.com/uzs0fQk5Yi— Newmarket Racecourse (@NewmarketRace) July 13, 2017
Plans called for U S Navy Flag to contest the Richmond (G2) at Glorious Goodwood, until soft ground prompted his withdrawal. He instead rose to Group 1 company at home in the Phoenix (G1) at the Curragh, where he led early but folded to fourth behind better-fancied stablemate Sioux Nation and favored Beckford (a threat in the Juvenile Turf).
Just when U S Navy Flag appeared to have hit his high water mark, he reached the crest of an ever higher succession of waves. Two weeks later in the August 27 Round Tower (G3) over the same course and distance as the Phoenix, he slammed them by six front-running lengths.
U S Navy Flag continued his progress as a 10-1 outsider in the Middle Park, flashing his customary speed, but now with a more consistent ability to see his race through to the end and not weaken. Turning the tables on old foes Cardsharp, Beckford, and Sioux Nation, he held his 25-1 stablemate Fleet Review in a massive O’Brien exacta.
With the established players all disappointing – including Prix Morny (G1) winner Unfortunately, the aforementioned Rajasinghe, and well-regarded Gimcrack (G2) hero Sands of Mali (in the Juvenile Turf) – the Middle Park might well have been written off as a fluky result.
Surely the Dewhurst, Newmarket’s ensuing Group 1 for juveniles in the autumn, would right the ship. On the contrary, the venerable seven-furlong prize only reiterated the supremacy of U S Navy Flag, this time at the expense of Juddmonte’s red-hot favorite Expert Eye. Although Expert Eye was well below his best, the fact that U S Navy Flag broke the juvenile course record in 1:22.37 tells you what a staggering performance it would have taken to beat him. He led home an O’Brien superfecta with Mendelssohn (Beholder’s $3 million half-brother in the Juvenile Turf), Seahenge, and Threeandfourpence.
U S Navy Flag became the first horse since Diesis (1982) to sweep the Middle Park and the Dewhurst. The double is exceedingly rare, for the two features lend themselves to contrasting types. The Middle Park caters to the speed-oriented set and the Dewhurst more to the future classic aspirants.
So why would O’Brien test him on dirt? One hypothesis is that the Coolmore/Ballydoyle brain trust does not regard him as a major European classic threat next year. After the Middle Park, O’Brien had him penciled in as a sprinter for the long-term. Indeed, he was earlier made eligible for the about five-furlong Prix de l’Abbaye (G1) on Arc Day! Granted he also had a couple of mile options in France too, but the Abbaye is not exactly an engagement you would hand a youngster you envision as a miler down the road. Obviously the Dewhurst changes that equation and gives him more hope of staying the mile like sister Roly Poly.
More intriguingly, there’s an angle involving stablemate Mendelssohn. U S Navy Flag’s first preference at pre-entry time was the Juvenile Turf. Mendelssohn was originally first preference for the Juvenile, which made sense for a half-brother to Beholder and Into Mischief. They ended up switching roles, with O’Brien mentioning that Mendelssohn isn’t quite ready for a task like the Juvenile. U S Navy Flag, with his 10-race wealth of experience, is more battle-hardened to give it a go. If Mendelssohn were primed for the Juvenile, does U S Navy Flag go too?
At the risk of seriously miscalculating U S Navy Flag’s talent (again), I think it’s an awfully big ask. That said, once you get past Bolt d’Oro, it’s an open-looking race, and if the favorite somehow falters, I can see a chaotic result. But for U S Navy Flag to carry his speed two turns on dirt, following three massive performances in a row down a turf straight, would be an amazing feat.
O’Brien actually called U S Navy Flag “amazing” in the “At The Races” Breeders’ Cup stable tour:
We always thought he was a really good colt, but it just took time for his mind to get in sync with his body…We’re throwing him in at deep end again by running him in the dirt race and stepping him up in trip at the same time, but he’s taken everything we’ve thrown at him so far and it will be exciting to see what he does.
Photo of Ryan Moore and U S Navy Flag courtesy of BHA Press Office via Twitter