`Emblem' stays on Triple track

Colt meets late challenge to win 2nd leg, give Baffert his third shot at Crown

May 19, 2002|By Tom Keyser | Sun Reporter

For the eighth time since 1978 when Affirmed became the 11th Triple Crown winner, the Preakness will send a horse to the Belmont Stakes with a chance of capturing racing's holy grail.

War Emblem, the black, smooth-striding colt owned by a prince, established that he can win on his own terms with a three-quarters-of-a-length victory in the 127th Preakness yesterday at Pimlico Race Course. Maryland phenomenon Magic Weisner, at odds of 45-1, charged on the outside for second place in a Cinderella finish for her Jessup breeder, owner and trainer, Nancy Alberts."Mom, you're a movie star now," Alberts' son, Will, shouted to Alberts, 56, as she was engulfed by reporters on the track after the race.

Although Magic Weisner brought fame to Maryland, War Emblem could bring glory to racing and a $5 million bonus to his owners with a victory June 8 at the Belmont Stakes in New York. The sport has endured without a Triple Crown winner - victor of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont - for 24 years since Affirmed swept the series.

Bob Baffert, the trainer of War Emblem, captured the first two jewels with Silver Charm in 1997 and Real Quiet in 1998, but failed each time in the Belmont. This time, the white-haired trainer from California believes he has perhaps his best chance with War Emblem.

"If I can just keep him like he was today, he can do it," Baffert said. "A mile and a half should be a lot easier on him. This horse just keeps getting better and better. It's scary."

Even though War Emblem won the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago with a freewheeling four-length victory, doubts persisted that he could win if challenged early. He won the Derby and, four weeks before that, the Illinois Derby by snaring the lead out of the gate and galloping uncontested around the track.

In the Preakness, California speed burner Menacing Dennis sprinted to the lead, denying War Emblem his privileged place at the head of the parade. War Emblem settled into second aside the pacesetter, just outside him, a mere head behind.

They ran together around the first turn, down the backstretch and into the far turn. War Emblem surged past the fading leader as they leaned into the bend. War Emblem repulsed a challenge by Proud Citizen, the Derby runner-up, and looked as if he would draw off into the fading afternoon sunlight.

But Magic Weisner suddenly appeared in the middle of the track, passing horses and surging toward the wire. Comfortable on the lead, War Emblem seemed to let his guard down momentarily. Magic Weisner cut the margin with every stride, but the finish line came before the unbelievable did. War Emblem had overcome his sternest challenge.

Baffert said his attitude before the race was: "If they come, let them come. We'll see what he's made of. ... He's bona fide. Everybody wants to see greatness, and this horse, he's got it. If they're going to win the Triple Crown, they've got to earn it."

Proud Citizen, racing wide from the 12 post, finished third, and Harlan's Holiday, seventh in the Kentucky Derby as the favorite, claimed fourth.

Saudi Arabian Prince Ahmed bin Salman, who bought War Emblem 3 1/2 weeks before the Kentucky Derby, said he was numb after the race.

"It takes me a week to feel anything," Prince Ahmed said.

He paid $990,000 for War Emblem after the colt romped by 6 1/4 lengths April 6 in the Illinois Derby. The horse's former owner and trainer weren't going to run him in the Kentucky Derby. They said they didn't think he belonged in such esteemed company.

The prince turned War Emblem over to Baffert, who at that point had run out of Derby prospects. Baffert made numerous changes in the colt's training regimen, most notably teaching him to relax and follow rider's instructions.

"Bob makes things look easy," Prince Ahmed said of Baffert.

Responding to criticism that he had purchased a Derby, and now a Preakness, winner, the prince said, "I think this was one of the best investments I ever made, besides finding oil in Saudi Arabia."

War Emblem's success has enriched the best investment Audrey and Allen Murray have made as well. The owners of Murmur Farm in Darlington bought Our Emblem, War Emblem's sire, last fall when he was a Kentucky castoff. After War Emblem's Derby triumph the Murrays turned down $4.5 million for the stallion. They expect to sell him eventually as the offers climb higher.

War Emblem completed the Preakness' 1 3/16 miles in 1 minute, 56.36 seconds. That was three seconds slower than the stakes record shared by Louis Quatorze (1996) and Tank's Prospect (1985). The track was fast despite soaking overnight and morning rain.

War Emblem became the 65th favorite to win the Preakness in its 127 runnings. He paid $7.60 to win and headed a $327 exacta, $2,311 trifecta and $6,701.50 superfecta.

Magic Weisner's second-place finish was the best by a Maryland horse since Oliver's Twist was second in 1995, a half length behind Timber Country. In 1997, Bowie-based Captain Bodgit finished a close third in a stirring battle with Silver Charm and Free House.

Silver Charm, after winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, faltered in the Belmont by a mere three-quarters of a length. That was Baffert's first attempt at a Triple Crown. The next year he came even closer when Real Quiet lost the Belmont by a heartbreaking nose.

"Those fans at Belmont, they've been packing the place waiting for it," Baffert said. "I'd like to do it. We started with Silver Charm. Third time's the charm."

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