ELMONT, N.Y. -- Though he's won races all over the country in a Hall of Fame career that has spanned 40 years and has even run three horses at Del Mar, trainer Shug McGaughey himself has never been to the Southern California track.
That will change next month when he will accompany War Flag to Del Mar for the $2 million Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf on Nov. 4.
War Flag earned her place in the starting gate for that race by wearing down Grand Jete in the last sixteenth of a mile and holding off Dacita at the wire to win Sunday's Grade 1, $500,000 Flower Bowl Stakes at Belmont Park. Dacita was second by a length over Grand Jete, who got third by a neck over Beauly.
Guilty Twelve and Zhukova completed the order of finish.
The win was the first in four starts in the U.S. for War Flag since being sent to McGaughey earlier this year by her owner-breeder Joe Allen. It was also McGaughey's first win in the Flower Bowl.
McGaughey said the Flower Bowl was the race Allen "was hoping we could make" when he sent her over from France, where she was a Group 3 winner for Jean-Claude Rouget.
War Flag, a daughter of War Front, beat males in an allowance race at Monmouth in June, before running second in the Grade 3 Matchmaker at Monmouth in July and third in the Grade 3 Glens Falls at Saratoga on Sept. 2.
McGaughey believed the wider turns of the Belmont turf course would favor War Flag. What he didn't know was whether the filly was good enough to compete at the Grade 1 level.
The Flower Bowl was run over a turf course labeled firm, but one that had absorbed about a quarter-inch of rain that had started falling in early morning and was intermittent into the early afternoon.
In a race that appeared to lack pace, Grand Jete, under Javier Castellano, took the initiative and set fractions of 24.76 seconds for the quarter, 49.24 for the half-mile and 1:12.60 for six furlongs while being stalked by Zhukova.
Meanwhile, Ortiz had War Flag sitting in third position, only about two lengths off the pace.
Grand Jete put away Zhukova and continued on the lead into midstretch, but War Flag gradually gained on her, passed her inside the sixteenth pole and then held off a late bid from Dacita.
War Flag covered the 1 1/4 miles in 2:00.26 and returned $21.20 as the fourth choice.
"In the Matchmaker she didn't get the trip Nick [Juarez] wanted. In the Glens Falls the [speed-favoring] way the turf came up didn't really suit us," McGaughey said. "She got back here and trained over this bigger racetrack and breezed over this turf course very well, so we came in here confident she would run good. Whether she was good enough we didn't know. I really thought Jose rode a terrific race."
McGaughey said he is a bit concerned about cutting War Flag back to 1 1/8 miles in the Filly and Mare Turf.
The Flower Bowl was one of four victories on the card for Ortiz, who also won the Grade 1 Frizette aboard Separationofpowers.
Chad Brown, who had won the last three runnings of the Flower Bowl, had to settle for second and third this year. Brown felt the give in the turf course compromised Dacita's late run. He thought the six furlongs in 1:12.60 hurt Grand Jete's chances.
Brown said he would like to run Grand Jete in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf. Brown said the 1 1/8 miles of that race is too short for Dacita and she would likely not run, pending a conversation with the owners who also own Lady Eli, who is being pointed to the Filly and Mare Turf.