War Emblem's trainer, Bob Baffert, is hoping the third time will, indeed, be the charm.
After taking the first two legs of horse racing's Triple Crown in 1997 and 1998 with Silver Charm and Real Quiet, respectively, only to lose out in the final leg in the Belmont Stakes, Baffert is again in position for the elusive honor with War Emblem.
After leading the Kentucky Derby every step of the way two weeks ago for a surprising win, War Emblem - coming out of the eight post in yesterday's Preakness Stakes - chased down Menacing Dennis in the stretch and then fought off Maryland-bred Magic Weisner to win by three-quarters of a length.
The Belmont Stakes, with a $5 million bonus possible for owner Prince Ahmed bin Salman if War Emblem can get the sweep, will be June 8. The prince bought the horse one month before the Derby and knew exactly where to look for a trainer.
"Bob makes things look easy. He's a genuine person and I really mean that. You can't judge him by one horse or two horses. You have to remember how many horses Bob has trained for me," the owner, rattling off a number of them, said.
"I was just thinking wire, please, wire - this is such a long stretch. And then let's do this Triple Crown," said Baffert. "I might not get too many chances and I just feel so fortunate. I've been so lucky. It's one of those things where horse racing ... we need a Triple Crown winner."
Baffert said each of his three potential Triple Crown horses has been very different and, yesterday, War Emblem showed something different from what he did in his win at Churchill Downs.
"He showed a dimension that nobody thought he had ... take the heat and keep on going. He's a pretty awesome animal," Baffert said.
Baffert had a pretty awesome day himself at Pimlico. Last year's win here with Point Given, following a loss in the Derby as the favorite, was bittersweet for the 49-year-old.
But this time, he said, "When we walked up [War Emblem] the crowd was so for this horse. They wanted him to win so badly. It was great, one of the best walks I've ever made with a horse."
Now he can only hope War Emblem can produce the same effort in the Belmont Stakes that Point Given did last year.
"When we won the Belmont last year, it was nice, but I had a little bit of a sick feeling. Hopefully, we get up there and those fans are waiting for us. I'd like to do it," he said.
At the post-race news conference, Baffert was his charismatic self, singing early and later jokingly saying he'd planned to blame jockey Victor Espinoza had War Emblem lost.
But no excuses were needed. Now, can War Emblem become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978?
"I think experience is going to help that we have gone through this before," said Baffert. "All we have to do is keep War Emblem healthy and fresh and ready and keep Victor healthy. Victor has got this horse figured out. He's having fun. But now the pressure is on for the Belmont. There will be more shooters, more rabbits."
Baffert's Preakness record
Trainer Bob Baffert's Preakness victory yesterday was his fourth in only seven years (DNF-did not finish):
Year Horse Finish
1996 Cavonnier 4th
1997 Silver Charm 1st
1998 Real Quiet 1st
1999 Excellent Meeting DNF
2000 Captain Steve 4th, 2001 Point Given 1st
2002 War Emblem 1st
Gaining on Preakness greats
Baffert is tied for fourth for Preakness victories by a trainer:
Robert W. Walden 7
Thomas J. Healey 5
D. Wayne Lukas 5
Bob Baffert 4
James Fitzsimmons 4, H.A. "Jimmy" Jones 4