ELMONT, N.Y. - The deluxe horse van, shimmering white on this overcast morning, gingerly rounded Man o' War Avenue onto Count Fleet Road at 10:45 yesterday at Belmont Park. It stopped next to a loading ramp.
Many of the narrow, paved roads in the Belmont stable area are named after Triple Crown winners, horses who completed their sweep of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes here at this majestic track on Long Island. The roads crisscross with sandy horse paths in a simple, slow-moving configuration in which horses always have the right of way.
The ambience is rural, despite the loud and speeding cars on the turnpike beyond the gate. Large and aged trees line the quiet roads and paths. Roosters crow from leafy tree limbs and cats scurry between the shadows of barns.
The peacefulness of morning, horses and people handling horses melds with the history of great races, ghosts of great horses and the prospect of great horses making more history. Into that magical atmosphere arrived the large van carrying War Emblem.
A horse virtually unknown two months ago, War Emblem can become one of racing's immortals with a victory Saturday in the 134th Belmont Stakes. That would complete a rare sweep of the spring classics for 3-year-olds and ensure that War Emblem would be known for all time as a Triple Crown winner - the 12th in history and the first since Affirmed in 1978.
The van had picked up War Emblem and three other Belmont horses at Republic Airport in nearby Farmingdale. The four had flown from Louisville, Ky., where they had prepared for the Belmont on their home tracks.
"All right, here he is," hollered Jim Barnes, as he led the first horse off the van, down the ramp and onto a horse path. "He's here."
Barnes, assistant to trainer Bob Baffert, flashed a mischievous grin. He might have fooled a few novices, but nearly all of the couple of hundred media members and onlookers knew that that horse was not a potential Triple Crown winner. It was Baffert's rotund stable pony.
On his heels, however, appeared a sleek, prancing, nearly black horse. This was War Emblem. Led by his groom, Roberto Luna, he peered nervously into the swarm of overbearing TV camera crews.
After they recorded his descent down the loading ramp, they ran past him to get in front and record his walk down the horse path. War Emblem fidgeted. Luna held him tightly.
"No running," shouted Baffert, who greeted the horse on the path. "No running. No running. Please."
A large, uniformed security man walking behind War Emblem attempted to wield his authority.
"Stand back," he bellowed. "Stand back. Behind me."
No one paid him the slightest mind.
War Emblem danced his way along the crowded path, keeping a wary eye on the insurgent horde. As he approached Man o' War Avenue - with the security man booming futilely, "Clear out, clear out" - War Emblem's prance became more animated and his tension more pronounced.
Luna led him directly into the sanctuary of Barn 7. The groom walked the high-strung colt several times around the barn under the protective shedrow. War Emblem reared and shook his tapered head. He stopped for sips of water from hanging buckets. Each time he passed an opening at the end of the barn, he craned his long neck and gawked at his attentive audience.
Baffert, tanned and wearing sunglasses, his white hair aglow, walked to one of the openings and said: "How's he look? Does he look like $5 miliion?"
War Emblem would earn for his owner, Saudi Arabian Prince Ahmed bin Salman, a $5 million bonus from Visa for winning the Triple Crown. Prince Ahmed bought 90 percent of the colt for $990,000 after his overpowering victory April 6 in the Illinois Derby.
"He shipped well," Baffert said. "He's a handful. But as long as he's doing great, you'll see a smile on my face."
A New York racing official whisked the smiling Baffert away so he could attend the post-position draw in a dining room on the fourth-floor of the racetrack. War Emblem drew post 10 in the 12-horse field and was pronounced the even-money favorite.
After the draw, in an interview room in the track basement, Baffert sat for questions about War Emblem's pursuit of Triple Crown glory. Baffert knows the most about that subject. He is the first trainer with his third chance of winning a Triple Crown.
He just missed with Silver Charm in 1997 and Real Quiet in 1998. After winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, they both lost the Belmont - Silver Charm by three-quarters of a length, Real Quiet by a nose.
"I've learned to appreciate just being in this position," Baffert said. "This is tough. Everything has got to go right. You need racing luck, plus you've got to have a great horse."
He said he believes he has one in War Emblem.
"I feel really confident about him," Baffert said. "He's training great. He's tough. There's not a lot of strategy involved. He's going to break, and he just runs.
"This horse, the farther he goes, the better he is. He's a lanky, marathon-type horse. He's got a great deal of speed, but he's got tremendous stamina. He's got more stamina than probably any horse I've had. He's like a cruise missile."
Baffert deflected questions about himself, steering the discussion back to War Emblem.
"This is not about Bob Baffert or Victor Espinoza [the colt's jockey] or Prince Ahmed," Baffert said. "This is about the horse. He's the one doing it. ... This is history."