By Frances J. Karon
When Gary Barber’s War of Will won the G3 LeComte S. at Fair Grounds in January, many people were left scratching their heads that a horse sired by War Front from a Sadler’s Wells mare had found his niche on the dirt. Then, with a win in the February 16th G2 Risen Star S., War of Will announced that his LeComte victory was the real deal, and this seemingly unlikely horse has become one of the leading contenders for this year’s Triple Crown races.
It’s no surprise that connections, too, assumed that War of Will, a $175,000 Keeneland September yearling RNA and €250,000 (roughly $300,000) purchase by Justin Casse on behalf of Barber at the Arqana May two-year-old sale in France, would be a turf horse. Sent back to the US, where he’d been bred by Flaxman Holdings Limited, War of Will was put into training with Casse’s brother Mark, and he made the first four starts of his career on the turf, resulting in a third in a Woodbine maiden, second in the G1 Summer S. at Woodbine, fourth in the G3 Dixiana Bourbon S. at Keeneland, and fifth in the G1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf at Churchill Downs. By all appearances, he was a nice colt, but not a spectacular one.
Since his switch to the dirt last November, War of Will is well on the way to becoming a spectacular colt. He’s three-for-three on the dirt, beginning with his five-length maiden win at Churchill. So far as a three-year-old, he’s won the LeComte by four and the Risen Star by two-and-a-quarter lengths.
War of Will, it seems, is proof that sometimes having a “turf” or “dirt” pedigree can be circumstantial.
Consider that his sire War Front never even ran on the turf. Nor did War Front’s sire Danzig. And of course Northern Dancer, the sire of both of War of Will’s grandsires (Danzig and Sadler’s Wells) and who also appears in the colt’s fifth and sixth generations, won three classic races — the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in the US and the Queen’s Plate in Canada — on the dirt. (On turf, he won one of two starts, the Summer S. as a two-year-old.)
As it happens, Northern Dancer sired one of racing history’s all-time greats, Nijinsky II, in his second crop. Trained out of Ballydoyle in Ireland by Vincent O’Brien, Nijinsky won the British Triple Crown. Because of Nijinsky, O’Brien and his partners at Coolmore couldn’t get enough of Northern Dancer’s progeny, buying, and later breeding, a lot of the stallion’s stock and importing them to Europe. Hence, Northern Dancer became a sire of “turf horses,” and his most successful sons followed much the same pattern, with their foals being sought after for European racing. But it must be noted that when given the opportunity, Northern Dancer’s sons were fully capable of siring good dirt horses. Take Nijinsky, for example — his 1983 crop of foals famously included two Derby winners: Ferdinand (Kentucky Derby on dirt) and Shahrastani (Epsom Derby and Irish Derby on turf).
War of Will’s grandsire Danzig — who like Nijinsky spent the entirety of his stud career at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Kentucky — was a brilliant winner of all three of his starts, all on the dirt. He didn’t sire a single Graded winner on the grass in his first crop, which produced champion two-year-old male Chief’s Crown (second in the Preakness and third in the Kentucky Derby and Belmont) and Stephan’s Odyssey (second, one place ahead of Chief’s Crown, in both the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont). It didn’t go unnoticed that a stallion who never ran in a stakes race had sired two G1-winning two-year-olds from his first crop. That both of those colts went on to earn five lines of black-type in the three US classic races cemented Danzig’s status as an important sire from early on, and it signaled that despite the unfulfilled promise of his race record, he was capable of siring at the highest level. Like other Northern Dancers that had come before him, Danzig thus drew the interest of European entities. When British Group 1-winning sprinter Green Desert emerged from his second crop, it was confirmed that Danzig could succeed in Europe, and, again like previous sons of Northern Dancer, many of his best produce were sent overseas.
War Front was not among Danzig’s best produce. He was a very good racehorse, but on the long list of “very good racehorses” that included some 110 GSWs (45 G1SWs) sired by Danzig, War Front’s race record alone was not enough to make him memorable. Trained by Allen Jerkens throughout most of his career — his first two starts were from the Kiaran McLaughlin barn — for breeder Joe Allen, War Front was a sprinter who won four-of-13 starts. His lone Graded stakes win came in the six-furlong, G2 Alfred H. Vanderbilt Breeders’ Cup H. at Saratoga. He was, however, second in the G1 Vosburgh S., G1 Forego S., G2 Tom Fool H., G3 Mr. Prospector H., and G3 Deputy Minister H. It could be said of War Front that on the track, he favored his broodmare sire Rubiano, the champion sprinter of 1992 who counted the Vosburgh and Tom Fool among his Graded wins.
Still, despite the top dirt qualifications of sire Danzig and damsire Rubiano, it’s a curiosity that War Front was never tried on the turf. By the time he came along, in Danzig’s 21st crop, his sire was considered one of the top turf stallions in the world. War Front’s dam Starry Dreamer earned all of her stakes wins, at Listed level, on that surface, and she got Graded black-type in seven turf races, although her only G1-placing was in the Gazelle H. on the dirt. Starry Dreamer’s first foal, Ecclesiastic (by Pulpit), was already a G3 winner on the turf before War Front, the next foal, had even broken his maiden.
War Front retired to Claiborne for a $12,500 stud fee — a paltry sum compared to the $250,000 he’s commanding in 2019. Among his first foals were two Graded winners on the dirt: The Factor-G1 (also a G1SW on synthetic) and Soldat-G2 (also a G3SW on turf). Soldat was on the Triple Crown trail; he won the Fountain of Youth and made it to the Derby, where he ran unplaced. But when War Front’s second crop yielded Declaration of War, who won the G1 Queen Anne S. at Royal Ascot and the G1 Juddmonte International at York, he quickly became a favorite stallion of the Coolmore group, who correctly guessed that he would be a perfect cross for their Sadler’s Wells-line mares. The War Front/Sadler’s Wells cross is an A+++ eNick that has produced 14% SWs to foals, a figure that is likely unfairly low this time of year because it includes a number of two-year-olds of 2019. The four SWs on this exact cross are led by G1SWs Brave Anna and Hit it a Bomb (full siblings) and now War of Will, who was conceived the year after Hit it a Bomb won the G1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf.
Sadler’s Wells, the sire of War of Will’s stakes-winning dam Visions of Clarity, is another important, turfy facet of the Risen Star winner’s pedigree. Sadler’s Wells was one of the most influential sires in modern history, yet none of his progeny won a Graded race on the dirt, but because he stood in Europe, it’s anybody’s guess how he would have done with more dirt opportunities. Of his 388 stakes winners as a broodmare sire, only eight have won Graded races on the dirt. One of these, G1SW Rich Tapestry, is bred similarly to War of Will, being by Holy Roman Emperor (by Danehill, by Danzig).
So it is safe to say that it’s widely accepted that on the top and bottom, and from the contributions of his female family (which I’ve not gone into here, but it is very turf-oriented), War of Will was bred to be a turf star. Or at least a turf horse, like his older full brother Moving, the winner of one race (on the turf) in 10 starts.
Remember that Danzig was an excellent dirt sire, and after coming so close to siring a US classic winner or two in his first crop, he got Belmont winner Danzig Connection in his second group of foals and later sired Pine Bluff, who won the Preakness, and Hard Spun, who placed in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. And remember too that War Front was a dirt horse, and that having hit the big time early on in Europe, his opportunities to have runners in the US, and specifically on the dirt, have been limited. To date, he has sired 13 unrestricted SWs on the dirt, including six individual GSWs, and it would be a mistake to pigeonhole him as strictly a turf sire.
No, it’s not the first thing you’d expect based on a glance at War of Will’s pedigree, but when you look at it more closely, there’s enough there to indicate that it wouldn’t be crazy to think that he could make War Front the third son of Danzig to get a Kentucky Derby winner. Coincidentally, the other two — Boundary (sire of Big Brown, who’s bred on a cross with more than a passing similarity to War of Will’s) and Polish Navy (Sea Hero) — both stood at Claiborne, like Danzig and War Front.