On a cold, windswept afternoon at Pimlico Race Course, Kentucky Derby long-shot winner War Emblem proved to the racing world that he was no one-jewel wonder.
The black colt moved forcefully into the lead at the far turn and held off a surprising local challenger to win the 127th Preakness Stakes yesterday and set the stage for a run June 8 at racing's Triple Crown.
Jockey Victor Espinoza steered War Emblem through the 13-horse field, outdueled Derby rival Proud Citizen down the stretch and crossed the finish line just ahead of Magic Weisner, a Maryland-bred colt who went off as the second-longest horse (45-1) in the field and came within a few steps of pulling one of the greatest upsets in the history of the Triple Crown series.
It all happened too fast for the crowd of 101,138 to comprehend the local implications. The fans were too busy roaring their approval at the impressive performance of War Emblem, who left the gate at Churchill Downs two weeks ago a 20-1 long shot and will enter the Belmont Stakes in three weeks with a chance to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
War Emblem went off yesterday as the favorite, paying $7.60 to win, $6 to place and $4.40 to show. Magic Weisner paid a hefty $33 to place and $14 to show. Proud Citizen hung in for third and paid $5 to show.
"This horse showed today that he's just a strong horse and he's getting stronger," said War Emblem's trainer, Bob Baffert. "He just gets better and better."
Baffert will go to Belmont Park with a chance to win the Triple Crown for the third time in six years. He came up short with Silver Charm in 1997 and Real Quiet in 1998.
"Fate owes me a Triple Crown," he said. "Hopefully, we can get it this time in the Belmont."
Contrasts in costs
War Emblem was purchased by Saudi Arabian Prince Ahmed bin Salman for $990,000 just 3 1/2 weeks before the Kentucky Derby. Quite a contrast to the background of Magic Weisner, who was bred out of a mare that Jessup trainer Nancy Alberts bought for a dollar.
"There's no comparison," Alberts said, "and to be here, where we are right now ... it's wonderful."
Somehow, it turned into a wonderful day in spite of the inclement weather that threatened to water down Maryland's premier racing event.
Heavy rain soaked Old Hilltop overnight, and showers continued into the morning, which dampened hope of challenging last year's record turnout of 104,454. But the infield and grandstands filled up as the rainy morning turned into a breezy, chilly afternoon, and Pimlico officials said they were pleased with the crowd - the second-largest in the history of the race.
"It's the typical question," said Maryland Jockey Club president Joe De Francis: "Is the glass half-empty or half-full? Unfortunately, we didn't have a [sunny] day like Thursday, but thank God it's not raining like it was early in the day. We'll take it. We're very happy."
De Francis said he spent an uneasy night, though the weather forecast called for the rain to cease by late morning.
"We track the weather forecast very closely," he said. "We could see we had a very serious weather pattern. It's hard to predict, so we were very concerned."
Infield revelers still had to deal with the muddy aftermath of the rainstorm, but the track was upgraded to fast well before the main event.
Candidates and coach
The infield looked as if someone had run it through a blender. Morning rain churned up pools of mud, but it apparently didn't make much difference to the thousands there to party, most of whom were fending off the chill with something other than warm clothing.
"It's like one big college party. It's the same as always," said Andy Durbin of Baltimore, "except we're wearing more clothes."
Adam Daugherty, 27, came down from Pittsburgh, ready to rock, with a bunch of his buddies. He stood whooping it up on top of a cooler, beer in hand and a horse mask on his head.
"It's an old Halloween costume. I had to wear it," said Daugherty, a software engineer. "It's perfect."
Seconds later, cameras spotted the horse head and zeroed in. Daugherty's face was plastered on a giant video screen. "See?" he said.
Bad weather may have slowed the arrival of the honchos who populate the tents in the VIP area, but there were plenty of familiar faces by the time bugler Joe Kelly signaled the arrival of the Preakness contenders on the track.
Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend made the rounds with her mother, Ethel Kennedy, and U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings worked the crowd as well.
"I'm campaigning," Cummings said, "but most of my constituents are not here, and I don't bet. I'll only stay for a couple of hours."
University of Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams, who gave the state its last magic sports moment, also attended the race.
Security was enhanced in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but police and security officials reported nothing out of the ordinary during the day.
There were 192 ejections for disorderly conduct and six arrests, according to Maj. Kathleen Patek of the Baltimore City Police. One officer was injured when he was hit in the back of the head with a beer can. He was taken to Mercy Hospital, treated for minor injuries and released.
Sun staff writers Lynn Anderson, Tricia Bishop and Tanika White contributed to this article.