War Emblem, pace lead pack of questions

Alone in Derby, victor will be challenged, but when?

May 18, 2002|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Seldom does a race of this magnitude come with a story line so straight and true.

Two weeks ago in the Kentucky Derby, a little-known near-black colt named War Emblem sneaked off to a lead all by himself. While everybody kept looking toward the back of the pack for someone to catch fire, War Emblem kept smoking on the lead. He won by four lengths.

Even before the race was over, trainers of opposing horses began reassessing their strategies.

Ken McPeek, trainer of Derby favorite Harlan's Holiday, realized during the stretch run that his colt needed to be closer next time. John Ward Jr., trainer of Booklet who didn't even run in the Derby, licked his chops at the prospect of his rested speedball taking on those weary Derby warriors.

So the questions of today's 127th Preakness Stakes are: Will Booklet or Harlan's Holiday, or maybe Medaglia d'Oro or Menacing Dennis, hook up with War Emblem early in one of those patented Preakness speed duels that reduces front-runners to ash?

Everybody's talking speed, but are they blowing smoke? Could all the threats of "going eyeball-to-eyeball" with War Emblem prove hollow - or even irrelevant? Maybe War Emblem is that good to repel all challenges and still win, snagging the chance at becoming the 12th Triple Crown winner three weeks from now in the Belmont.

"I don't think anybody knows," said D. Wayne Lukas, five-time winner of the Preakness and trainer of two entrants this year, Proud Citizen and Table Limit. "I don't think anybody's playing their hole card. I'd be very surprised if anybody's being totally honest with you guys."

Lukas was speaking with a group of reporters yesterday at the Pimlico stakes barn.

At the other end of the barn, Bob Baffert held court later with many of those same reporters. Baffert trains War Emblem. This is his third try in the Preakness with a Derby winner. He's been successful both times - in 1997 with Silver Charm and 1998 with Real Quiet. Both horses lost in the Belmont.

"I don't think anybody knows what they're going to do," Baffert said. "I think everybody's just trying to psych each other out."

The weather forecast also added uncertainty to everybody's plans. Heavy rains were forecast overnight and into this morning. Then it was supposed to clear, leaving temperatures in the low 60s.

How a wet track would affect the Preakness' 13 runners is hard to tell. Not all the horses have run on one, and not all wet tracks are the same.

Horses have come from all over the country for the $1 million race, the second leg of the Triple Crown. A victory by War Emblem would send him off to New York as the eighth horse since Affirmed in 1978 with a chance of sweeping the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont.

Affirmed was the last Triple Crown winner. The year before, Seattle Slew captured the coveted series. He died May 7, leaving racing without a living Triple Crown winner for the first time since 1919. That's the year Sir Barton became the first horse to win the three-race series.

Baffert says the Preakness will be War Emblem's toughest assignment in the series. The son of Our Emblem, the coveted stallion standing at Murmur Farm in Maryland, has a bull's-eye on his back, and Baffert knows it.

If War Emblem is to win the Preakness, then he's probably going to have to fight harder and overcome more challenges than he did in the Derby.

"That's what brings out the greatness in horses," Baffert said. "If he's a Triple Crown type of horse, I want him to earn it."

Baffert has become smitten with War Emblem over the past five weeks. That's how long he has trained the smooth-running colt. One of Baffert's main - and richest - clients, the Saudi Prince Ahmed bin Salman, bought War Emblem for $990,000 after his 6 1/4 -length romp in the Illinois Derby.

Baffert says War Emblem was a "hateful son of a gun" who'd rather bite than nuzzle. But the colt has mellowed under the mint-and-carrot brigade in Baffert's barn. Still, you don't want to turn your back on him.

"He's a tough horse," Baffert said. "If he gets in a dogfight, I think he'll pass the test."

Lukas, who trains Derby runner-up Proud Citizen, says he believes the son of Gone West, who cost $425,000 as a yearling, can turn the tables on War Emblem in the Preakness. Proud Citizen got a late start on his 3-year-old season after undergoing surgery last fall for removal of a bone spur in his knee.

"We were one short of our best race in the Derby," Lukas said. "I think our best race might be right in front of us."

Booklet, the little horse with blistering speed, will break from the 10 post, outside War Emblem in the 8 and Proud Citizen in the 12. Ward has been trying to teach the son of Notebook to relax so that he might have a chance of carrying his speed over the Preakness' 1 3/16 miles.

If Booklet doesn't relax, and he stirs up War Emblem in the process, "it might be like in basketball where you guard a guy so well he doesn't get any points, but neither do you," Ward said.

Ward also hired Pat Day to ride Booklet. Day is a master at getting a horse to relax and at judging pace. He has also won the Preakness five times, one short of Eddie Arcaro's six.

"The Derby was a rider's race," Ward said. "I think the Preakness will be even more of a rider's race."

Day says that is all well and good, but that you can't predict what's going to happen in any race, especially one with such variables - and intrigue.

"Is everybody going to come away from there gunning because they can't let that horse [War Emblem] go on his own?" Day said. "But how many times do you look at a race on paper, and it looks like it's chock-full of speed, but everybody leaves there and takes back, not wanting to get up in a speed duel?"

Day paused.

"I won't have the answer to that until we get into the race," he said.

Seldom does a race of this magnitude come with a story line so straight and true - and so indecipherable.

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