War Emblem wires home win

20-1 shot breaks on top, never looks back to give Baffert 3rd Derby top hat

Darlington, Md., farm celebrates

Saudi owner gets win after `humbling' '01 race

Proud Citizen is second

Kentucky Derby

May 05, 2002|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - With a horse a Saudi prince bought him to train, Bob Baffert won his third Kentucky Derby yesterday with a fast, nearly black son of Our Emblem named War Emblem.

The long-striding long shot loped into the lead, strode effortlessly around the sun-drenched Churchill Downs' oval and then powered down the long stretch, drawing away for a dominant four-length victory. The wire-to-wire performance - the first at the Derby since Winning Colors in 1988 - boldly answered the question of which 3-year-old in this seemingly evenly matched group of 18 could distinguish himself and win this country's most famous race.

The outcome before a crowd of 145,033 kicked off a champagne celebration at Murmur Farm in Darlington, Md., where Our Emblem is standing his first year at stud. Audrey and Allen Murray, who own the farm, bought the 11-year-old stallion last fall after he had grown out of favor in Kentucky. As soon as the Murrays closed the deal, sons and daughters of Our Emblem suddenly started winning.

The sire's now-famous son, War Emblem, claimed for Prince Ahmed bin Salman the Kentucky Derby he thought he would win last year with Point Given. Prince Salman, a member of the Saudi royal family, and Baffert, who trained Point Given, were mystified and disappointed when Point Given finished fifth as the highly regarded favorite.

"It was a humbling experience last year," said Baffert, who is based in Southern California. "I'd thought, `No problem, piece of cake.' You've got to be so lucky. I didn't know if this horse was good enough. I figured if he runs the race he ran in the Illinois Derby, he's a winner."

After War Emblem skipped away to a 6 1/4 -length victory April 6 in the Illinois Derby at Sportsman's Park, Prince Salman bought him five days later. The prince's racing manager, Richard Mulhall, said he paid $990,000 for the Kentucky-bred colt. Baffert trained War Emblem for three weeks.

He was mostly overlooked in pre-race analyses, thought to be an unproven speedball who would flame out when pressured early in this demanding 1 1/4 -mile race. But the pressure that sizzles in most Derbies fizzled in this one.

Victor Espinoza, a California jockey riding in his second Kentucky Derby, sat patiently and allowed War Emblem's natural speed and cool demeanor to run their course. With no daring speedster challenging at any point, War Emblem ran comfortably, conserving energy. That was precisely what Baffert had in mind.

"He probably told me a hundred times: `Don't move until the last minute,' " said Espinoza, who was riding the horse for the first time. "Finally I listened."

As War Emblem led the 18-horse parade, Proud Citizen followed closest. The two ran one-two virtually the entire race, not only bringing large payoffs to their backers but also redemption to their trainers. Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas, who trains Proud Citizen, had been scoffed for almost not making the race they've dominated in recent years.

Lukas didn't know he had a Derby horse until Proud Citizen scored in the Lexington Stakes two weeks ago. Baffert didn't have a Derby horse until the prince bought him one.

"We sort of came in the back door," Baffert said. "We're leaving through the front door."

With the favorite, Harlan's Holiday, going off at 6-1 (the highest odds for a favorite in Derby history), enormous payoffs were virtually assured. In fact, record payoffs for exacta, trifecta and superfecta occurred.

War Emblem, 20-1, paid $43 to win. He combined with Proud Citizen, 23-1, for a $1,300.80 exacta. With the 7-1 Perfect Drift third, the trifecta returned $18,373.20. Medaglia d'Oro, 6-1, finished fourth, completing a $1 superfecta worth $91,764.50.

War Emblem's time of 2 minutes, 1.13 seconds was the ninth fastest of the 128 Kentucky Derbies. With no speed duel tiring out front-runners, closers such as Perfect Drift, Essence Of Dubai, Saarland and Lusty Latin were compromised and lacked their usual late kick.

"They were walking," said Eddie Delahoussaye, jockey of third-place finisher Perfect Drift. "I thought there would be five or six horses in front of me, but nobody was going with the leader. I just don't know where those other horses were. What can you say? That's horse racing."

Harlan's Holiday, the favorite who never caught the bettors' imagination, struggled throughout and finished seventh. "No major excuses," said his trainer, Ken McPeek.

Said his jockey Edgar Prado: "He didn't pull like he usually does. When we hit the backstretch, he didn't give me any confidence. I had to put him in a drive a lot sooner than I wanted to. He really didn't respond."

War Emblem responded for Espinoza, Baffert and Prince Salman. After winning the Kentucky Derby in 1997 with Silver Charm and 1998 with Real Quiet, Baffert said he was surprised at his feelings as War Emblem romped down the stretch.

"That last 100 yards, you wish it would last forever," Baffert said. "I almost started crying when they hit the wire."

He said that as they made their way from their box seats to the winner's circle, Prince Salman kept saying: "Bob, pinch me. Pinch me. Is this really happening?"

The prince is the first Arab owner of a Kentucky Derby winner. He is a nephew of Saudi Arabia's King Fahd and a long-time owner of racehorses. He owns an extensive publishing company with newspapers and magazines in Saudi Arabia and England.

Asked about tensions between his country and the United States after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he said: "I'm a businessman, not a politician. Leave that question to the politicians. I think there's no problem [between the countries] anyway."

He was also asked about buying a horse to win the Derby. Baffert interrupted and said that anybody who criticizes the purchase is "just jealous, envious of us. We just got lucky when we bought this horse."

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