Seven-year-old gelding War Story runs in his 36th race Saturday in Del Mar’s signature race. A victory would be the biggest of his career.
It is an experience only a fortunate few in horse racing get to have, and Glenn Ellis pulled it off in his first try.
The first thoroughbred Ellis ever was a part of purchasing was War Story, and just six races into his career, the son of Northern Fleet was a starter in the 2015 Kentucky Derby.
Enthralled by horse racing while growing up in New Jersey, Ellis vowed to his parents that he’d one day have a horse in the big race at Churchill Downs after watching Ferdinand’s Derby victory in 1986.
“Truly the greatest day of my life,” Ellis said of Derby Day four years ago. “Walking down to ‘My Old Kentucky Home,’ it was off the bucket list.”
The race certainly was not memorable for War Story’s performance. The gelding finished 16th in the 18-horse field, but at least was a part of history. American Pharoah captured the first leg of the first Triple Crown achieved in 37 years.
Pharoah raced three more times before being retired to stud, while War Story has provided Ellis and his ownership partners — currently John Guarnere, of Imaginary Stables — with four more years’ worth of trials and memories.
The next opportunity comes Saturday, when 7-year-old War Story runs for the 36th time, as part of a field of 10 for the $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar. Assigned morning-line odds of 8-1 in what appears to be a wide-open affair, War Story will break from the No. 1 post with Tiago Pereira riding him for the first time.
The owners and trainer Jorge Navarro shipped War Story in from Monmouth Park in New Jersey, with designs on seizing the Pacific Classic and the Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” prize.
“I absolutely believe we will win,” Ellis said Thursday.
In his third time running at Del Mar, War Story returns to the site of his best showing in the Breeders’ Cup — a fourth-place finish in the 2017 Classic won by Gun Runner. War Story was eighth in the 2016 Classic at Santa Anita captured by Arrogate and eighth in the 2015 Dirt Mile at Keeneland.
Before the loss to Arrogate, trained by Bob Baffert, Ellis and Baffert struck up a conversation about the $150,000 entry fee the owner paid. As Ellis recalled, Baffert needled him with, “You could have bet that money on Arrogate and gone on a cruise.”
“Bob’s funny, but he truly knows the roles are reversed this year,” Ellis said.
Baffert’s lone entry in the Pacific Classic is a lightly raced 4-year-old Argentine-bred, For the Top.
War Story has always run in tough company. In his previous Pacific Classic appearance, in ’16, he finished seventh in a victory by California Chrome.
“I don’t see any horse like Gun Runner or Arrogate or American Pharoah (in this Pacific Classic),” Ellis said. “All of these races we have, I think (War Story) has an advantage being an older horse.”
After watching War Story work in the heavy Del Mar dirt over two days, Navarro said Thursday, “He loves this track. Watching him train today, he got my attention. He’s usually kind of a quiet horse, but he wanted to do something. He was on his bit. He wanted to go out and do it fast.”
War Story enters the Pacific Classic coming off his seventh career victory, July 20 in the Grade III Monmouth Cup, a home-course triumph for Ellis and Co., who hadn’t visited the winner’s circle with the horse since a March 2018 victory at Tampa Bay Downs.
It was War Story’s third start off a five-month layoff. The second time out was extremely disappointing — a lethargic last-place finish in the Brooklyn Invitational, which was run at 8 p.m. on Belmont Stakes day.
Navarro put some of the blame on War Story being shipped from Monmouth at 5 in the morning on race day and then standing in a stall for more than 12 hours waiting to run.
“He was mad, very angry,” Ellis said. “He kicked his stall. After the race, I walked all the way back to the barn to make sure he was OK. He gave me a look of, ‘I’m fine; I’m just pissed.’ ”
While some prominent East Coast trainers send an assistant to Del Mar for stakes races, Navarro said he left 140 horses behind in the East to be with War Story, who was flown in Tuesday.
“These are opportunities of a lifetime. I’m not going to take it for granted,” said Navarro, who has 19 graded-stakes victories among more than 3,900 starters.
Ellis said of Navarro, “He truly has a bond with this horse. He would not run his best if his trainer wasn’t here. The horse is very astute. He knows what’s going on.”
War Story is aptly named, given his tumultuous history. Though he has been conditioned by Navarro for his last 17 starts, he had eight different trainers for his first 18 races. He’s been ridden by 17 different jockeys. He’s run at 15 different racetracks.
Ellis puts much of that inconsistency on the decision-making of former co-owner Ron Paloucci, who asked to be bought out of his stake in War Story after a 10th-place finish in the 2018 Pegasus World Cup.
It’s no wonder that when Navarro got the gelding in January 2017, he said War Story was “a very unhappy horse.”
“He was a mean horse. He’d act up in his stall. When he came out of the barn, he wanted to hurt somebody,” Navarro said.
On the solutions to that, Navarro said, “We just started letting him do his own thing, not forcing him to do things he didn’t want to do. We all pay attention to the habits. If he’s not ready to do something, we don’t make him do it.”
Ellis has grown close enough to War Story that he can coax him to lower his head and turn it sideways, like a dog. The horse doesn’t do it for free. A piece of peppermint is the reward.
It’s the least Ellis can do for all of the memories.
Hollendorfer to race in N.Y.
Clearing up uncertainty over his racing status in New York, Jerry Hollendorfer told the Daily Racing Form that he is shipping King Jack from Del Mar to run in the Grade I H. Allen Jerkens Stakes on Aug. 24 at Saratoga.
A New York Racing Association spokesman issued a statement: “Jerry Hollendorfer is a licensed trainer in New York State who is permitted to ship in and enter horses to race at all NYRA tracks including Saratoga Race Course.”
Hollendorfer was asked to vacate stalls at Santa Anita near the end of its winter/spring meet after a fourth horse he trained suffered a fatal injury. He was banned by Del Mar for its summer meet, but won a San Diego Superior Court injunction that allowed him to return to racing.
Hollendorfer’s attorney is seeking a similar injunction in Northern California that would allow Hollendorfer to run horses at Golden Gate, which is operated by The Stronach Group, which banned him from Santa Anita.
Baffert told the Daily Racing Form that Game Winner, who would most likely have been the favorite for the $1.25 million Grade I Travers Stakes on Aug. 24, will miss the race due to a virus. The 3-year-old is owned by Gary and Mary West of Rancho Santa Fe.