Preakness plot couldn't be clearer

It's all about `War's' chase of Crown, rivals' tactics

127th Preakness

May 12, 2002|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

The Kentucky Derby left many observers cold.

It established that this country's most popular race, at least in 2002, was all about money. A Saudi Arabian prince bought War Emblem, the eventual winner, less than a month before the race.

Then the colt, a 20-1 long shot, led every step. The first three finishers maintained their positions all the way around the track, depriving fans of late drama down Churchill Downs' often-dramatic stretch.

Thank goodness for the Preakness, which often corrects inadequacies of the Derby. The 127th Preakness Stakes, the second jewel of racing's Triple Crown, will take place Saturday at Pimlico Race Course.

Nothing is a sure thing in racing, but you can bet that the Preakness will offer unambiguous story lines: The field's aggressive assault upon War Emblem, who was virtually ignored in the Derby (by handicappers before the race and by opposing jockeys during the race), and War Emblem's pursuit of the Triple Crown in the wake of Seattle Slew's death last week.

Only 11 horses have swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes, starting with Sir Barton in 1919. But in the ensuing 83 years, a Triple Crown winner has always graced the racing landscape, nibbling on fresh hay in some barn somewhere - until Tuesday, when Seattle Slew, the last living winner of the Crown, died in Kentucky.

War Emblem can restore the balance by winning the Preakness and then, three weeks later, the Belmont. He has a worthy name. War Emblem fits nicely with Sir Barton, Gallant Fox, Omaha, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault, Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed.

War Emblem's trainer, Bob Baffert, said he'd love to provide racing the Triple Crown winner it covets. He came close in 1997 with Silver Charm and in 1998 with Real Quiet. They won the Derby and Preakness, but lost the Belmont. Last year, Baffert's Point Given lost the Derby, but won the Preakness and Belmont.

"Those Belmont fans, we owe it to them," Baffert said. "They're hungry for it. I'd love to be the one to do it."

In the days before the Kentucky Derby, Baffert did not tout his horse, as he often does. He says now that that was part of his strategy.

"We couldn't do too much bragging," he said, "because we didn't want anybody out there bothering him."

And nobody did. No crazed speed horses challenged War Emblem early and forced him to overextend himself. Conserving energy, he galloped along comfortably in the lead. After turning for home, he displayed a burst of power and drew off to a four-length victory.

Baffert's strategy worked, and jockey Victor Espinoza carried it out flawlessly. The competition overlooked War Emblem, and he "stole" the race.

"It was fun to know that the game plan worked," Baffert said. "But there won't be a whole lot of tactics in the Preakness. Everybody knows about him now."

But nobody seems too afraid of him. His past-performance lines indicate that when left alone on an easy lead, he wins; when pressured early, he folds.

Although for a while it looked as if a full field of 14 might gather for the Preakness, it appears now that 13 will line up in the gate. Of course, this is only Sunday, and six days in racing provide ample opportunity for surprise and disappointment.

Four of the 13 have arrived at Pimlico (Crimson Hero, Equality, Straight Gin and USS Tinosa). One remains stabled at Laurel Park (Magic Weisner).

One is due Tuesday at Pimlico (Menacing Dennis), and five are due Wednesday (Booklet, Easy- fromthegitgo, Harlan's Holiday, Proud Citizen and War Emblem). One isn't coming until the morning of the race (Medaglia d'Oro). And trainer Neil Drysdale is typically coy about his plans for Sunday Break.

Bobby Frankel, trainer of Medaglia d'Oro, stabled for the week at Belmont, has switched jockeys - from Lafitt Pincay Jr. to Jerry Bailey. Chris McCarron will ride Crimson Tide and Pat Day will pilot Booklet.

At a glance

What:127th Preakness Stakes, second leg of thoroughbred horse racing's Triple Crown

Where:Pimlico Race Course

When:Saturday

Post time:6:04 p.m.

Distance:1 3/16 miles

Purse:$1 million

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