Going into this year’s Breeders’ Cup, there was little doubt that the brilliant 2-year-old colt U S Navy Flag was going to be a much talked about, highly discussed, and heavily valued entry into the juvenile racing world of North America.

After all, the son of the world-class stallion War Front was coming into this year’s Championships off three straight world-class victories. He had won the Group 3 Round Tower Stakes and the Group 1 Juddmonte Middle Park Stakes — both at The Curragh in Ireland — and the Group 1 Darley Dewhurst Stakes at Newmarket, in England.

After all, the beautifully crafted bay colt had 4 wins, a second, 2 thirds and 2 fourths in 10 lifetime starts — and had earned over $640,000 in purses.

After all, in his last three wins, U S Navy Flag had recorded TimeForm speed figures of 99, 107 and then 112 respectively.  Each and every one getting better and higher with each and every start.

No question. He was going to be one of Europe’s most interesting and most highly respected entrants for this year’s Breeders’ Cup extravaganza.

Then, on Monday, trainer Aidan O’Brien shock up the pill box and entered his prized, young colt in the Juvenile — on the dirt — and not the Juvenile Turf — on the grass.

Suddenly, there were questions. Plenty of them.

Why would a world class trainer like O’Brien — who entered 11 horses for this week’s Championships — put U S Navy Flag on the dirt for the first time ever?

Why would he not run on the grass, where he had run all 11 of his previous races?

Why would you go from the high-powered favorite in one event to a high-powered question mark in another?


Well, let’s take a look and see if there is sound reason to O’Brien’s reasoning.  Or, if this decision is more fancy and wonderment that will lead to more second-guessing about O’Brien’s decision to guess.

As previously mentioned here, U S Navy Flag is by the brilliant Claiborne Farm stallion War Front, who has emerged as one of the world’s most noted and renown stallions, and whose progeny have garnered the attention, focus and dollars of the world’s top bidders from both Europe and the United States.

War Front is by Danzig, who was so unsound as a young racehorse due to a quirky knee that he was retired to Claiborne Farm as a stallion after winning all of his first three races. Trained by Woody Stephens for former Calumet Farm owner Henryk de Kwiatkowski, Danzig earned all of $32,400 at the racetrack, but the son of Northern Dancer and out of the Admiral’s Voyage mare Pas De Nom had the pedigree that made Claiborne President Seth Hancock itch with envy.

The master of ceremonies at the world’s top stallion operation knew that he had a young stallion prospect that was sure to be a star.  He knew it.  And, he was right.  It didn’t take long before Danzig became one of the world’s most important sires. He led the U.S. sires list from 1991 to 1993 and the was also the top sire in Spain and the United Arab Emirates.

In his tenure, Danzig sired 188 graded stakes winners and 10 championships. If that wasn’t impressive enough, his foals earned more than $100 million in purse money and his progeny included Breeders’ Cup winners Chief’s Crown, Lure, Dance Smartly and War Chant, as well as European champs Dayjur, and Anabaa, and he was the sire of Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame inductee Langfuhr. And, some of his sons — including Dunhill — have subsequently become tremendous influences on the breed, as well.

(War Front)

He was also the father of War Front, the sire of U S Navy Flag. War Front was a Stakes winner of $424,205 and won the Grade 2 Alfred G. Vanderbilt Stakes at Saratoga. And, it was no surprise that the colt followed in his father’s considerable hoof prints all the way to the Claiborne stallion complex. And, it was little surprise when he started knocking out real good runners — most of whom found their footing on grass.

His top runners included Lines of Battle, a champion 3YO colt in Dubai, and Declaration of War, a champion older male in Europe, England and Ireland. He was the sire of Warning Flag, a classic winner on the grass in Hong Kong and Summer Front, a brilliant runner over the turf here in the U.S. He was the sire of Jack Milton, who won the G1 Maker’s 46 Mile at Keeneland, and Data Link, who accomplished the same feat. All on grass.

So, when U S Navy Flag showed his brilliance early this year in Ireland and England on the grass, it made so much sense. After all, his father was.  After all, his father was throwing sons and daughters all over the world that were.

And, if that wasn’t enough, U S. Navy Flag’s mother was no slouch on the grass either.  Misty For Me, by the great grass runner and sire Galileo had 5 wins in 8 starts from 2 to 3; was the highlight filly at 2; was a multiple Group 1 Stakes winner and was a full sister to the great runner/stallion Ballydoyle.

And, if that wasn’t enough II, Misty for Me had already thrown the great Roly Poly — who will run this weekend, as well. Roly Polly has already won multiple Group 1 races in Europe, as well, and has earned nearly $1 million in purses.

So, the pedigree left little doubt. U S Navy Flag was meant to be; cut out to be; ordained to be a great grass runner.

Yet, on Saturday, we will see him on the dirt? What’s up with that?

Well, there are reasons to not just toss this grand grass horse because of the surface switch. Not just yet.  Not without a deeper dive.

First of all, War Front’s mother, Starry Dreamer, who didn’t win but did run second three times in five starts. She was by the late stallion Rubiano, who was a champion sprinter in the United States in 1992. Rubiano, before he was retired to Lane’s End Farm for stallion duty, raced for a partnership headed by Centennial Farms, and won 13 of 28 races — including 3 Grade 1 events.  All of those — the NYRA Mile, the Carter Handicap and the Vosburgh Stakes — were all on the dirt. And, he earned over $1.2 million in purses — all on the dirt.

And, Rubiano, was heavily in-bred to the American Horse of the Year, Native Dancer and the talented Florida stallion Rough’n Tumble. He was a half brother to the SW Tap Your Heels — the dam of 2004 Wood Memorial Stakes winner and now one of the world’s all-time great stallions, Tapit.

There is some dirt influence. Of the highest caliber.

While War Front is now known as a stellar sire of grass winners, he has had good luck with dirt runners, too. His son Departing won the G2 West Virginia Derby, the G3 Illinois Derby and the G2 Firecracker Stakes on his way to earning nearly $2 million in purses — on the dirt. His son The Factor was brilliantly fast, winning the G1 Malibu Stakes, the G1 Pat O’Brien and the G2 Rebel Stakes and nearly $1 million in earnings. His daughter Peace and War won the G1 Peace and War on the dirt at Keeneland as a top 2YO.

There is some dirt influence. Of the highest caliber.

And, then there is U S Navy’s fourth dam Anne Campbell, a daughter of Never Bend and a winner of 3 races including the Old Hat Stakes.

She became the dam of the likes of Menifee, a son of Harlan and winner of over $1.7 million — including the G1 Haskell Invitational and G1 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes in addition to running second in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes and third later that year in the G1 Travers.

Dirt influence. Highest caliber.

Ann Campbell, also, became the dam of Desert Wine, by Damascus, who had 8 wins and earnings of $1.6 million.  He won the G1 Hollywood Gold Cup, the G1 Chalres H. Strub, the G1 Californian and the G2 San Felipe. He, too, ran second in the Kentucky Derby.

Dirt influence. Highest caliber.

So, when you dig deep, you can see why Aidan O’Brien and the connections of Michael Tabor Mrs. John Magnier — who own this great 2YO Turf Runner Extraordinaire — you can see why that may try the dirt on Saturday.  You can see why that they may dream of tomorrow. You can see why that may have hopes of May.

We will see if this experiment works. But the connections certainly deserve credit for trying.