ELMONT, N.Y. - If War Emblem is to become racing's 12th Triple Crown winner, he must meet the challenge of defeating more horses tomorrow in the Belmont Stakes than any of the previous Triple Crown winners.
Yesterday, Puzzlement was withdrawn from the race because of a bruised foot, leaving a field of 11 for the 134th Belmont tomorrow at Belmont Park. That is more than twice the average field size of the race when it culminated a Triple Crown sweep.
Those 11 Belmonts averaged a measly 5.4 horses a race. What's more, seven of the 11 Triple Crown winners had to outrun four or fewer horses in the Belmont. The only two Triple Crown winners to defeat even seven horses in the Belmont were Seattle Slew and Citation. And that was a crowd for Citation, who had faced only five in the Kentucky Derby and three in the Preakness.
How times have changed. War Emblem humbled 17 horses in the Derby and then knocked off 12 in the Preakness. If 11 horses start in the Belmont, then War Emblem, if he wins, will have vanquished 39 foes throughout the Triple Crown series, seven more than War Admiral and 25 more than Count Fleet.
Bob Baffert, trainer of War Emblem, said television has made the Triple Crown races so popular that owners of horses who really don't belong in the series - and wouldn't have run years ago - want to participate, anyway. Larger fields increase the likelihood of a horse getting bumped or pinched back at the break or impeded or forced wide at the turn.
They also provide the opportunity for more horses to assault the favorite at different stages of the race. In short, larger fields make winning more difficult, and that is the challenge facing War Emblem in the Belmont as he attempts to make racing history.
Murray Johnson, trainer of Perfect Drift, is counting on precisely that - a series of challenges to War Emblem in the early and middle stages, tiring him out so a late-running powerhouse can overtake him in the stretch.
"It's not always the best horse who wins," Johnson said. "It's the horse who has everything go his way."
And War Emblem had everything his way in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, Johnson said. In the Derby, the overlooked War Emblem snared an uncontested lead and cruised to a four-length victory at 20-1 odds.
In the Preakness, Menacing Dennis shot to the lead, but dropped to the rail, allowing War Emblem to track him conveniently. No one challenged War Emblem in mid-race, allowing his attention to remain fixed on the inferior Menacing Dennis. When War Emblem surged past the tiring front-runner, his victory was assured.
Perfect Drift skipped the Preakness, but he suffered from War Emblem's good fortune in the Derby. A closer who had finished first or second in six races, Perfect Drift spun his wheels behind the moderate pace and still managed to finish third. Johnson expects a different scenario in the Belmont.
"We're very optimistic," said the affable Australian. "Our horse is fit and feels good. We'll just sit in our spot, six or eight lengths [behind War Emblem], and hopefully we'll have some help from other horses. We can't beat him by ourselves."
Unlike Perfect Drift, who hasn't raced in five weeks, Medaglia d'Oro met War Emblem in both the Derby and Preakness. The highly regarded colt trained by Bobby Frankel finished fourth in the Derby, but faltered in the Preakness, finishing eighth.
Frankel said the lackluster effort puzzled him then and puzzles him still. But Medaglia d'Oro, hardly fatigued, maintained his energy and bolstered his trainer's hopes for the Belmont. Frankel committed to the race after learning that speedball Wiseman's Ferry would run.
"Wiseman's Ferry is the whole key to the race," Frankel said. "If he goes ... "
He did not complete the thought, but the message was clear. If Wiseman's Ferry, a more formidable horse than Menacing Dennis, goes after War Emblem early, then Medaglia d'Oro has a better chance late. So Frankel, too, is looking for help against War Emblem.
Of his own horse, Frankel said: "He's really good - really good. And he'll run good. I can't promise you that he'll win, but he will run good."
Wiseman's Ferry is a son of Hennessy probably unsuited to the 1 1/2 -mile test of the Belmont. But his trainer, outgoing Irishman Niall O'Callaghan, decided to take a chance after the colt scored a gate-to-wire victory May 11 in the Lone Star Derby at Lone Star Park.
O'Callaghan won't discuss strategy, but he insists Wiseman's Ferry is not in the Belmont to soften up War Emblem for late-running wolves. "I'm focused on winning the race with my horse," the trainer said.
D. Wayne Lukas, trainer of Proud Citizen, who finished second in the Derby and third in the Preakness, said he's not sure Wiseman's Ferry can outfoot War Emblem out of the gate even if he wanted to.
"This isn't Lone Star," Lukas said.
Proud Citizen has thrived since the Preakness and become even fitter in the ensuing three weeks, Lukas said. He acknowledges his colt might be one of the mid-race challengers to War Emblem.
"If we can get to him earlier," Lukas said, "we'll try him earlier."
Neil Drysdale, trainer of Sunday Break, declined to discuss War Emblem or the Belmont prospects of his talented Forty Niner colt. When a reporter asked about him possibly playing the spoiler, Drysdale snapped: "My horse is not in there to play spoiler. He's in there to try to win a classic race."
The only Belmont horse not in New York is Magic Weisner, the Maryland-based entry bred, owned and trained by Nancy Alberts. She plans on vanning her Preakness runner-up today from Laurel Park to Belmont.
This will be Magic Weisner's first race outside Maryland. His performance in the Preakness at 45-1 shocked the racing world, but Alberts' story of breeding the horse after nurturing his crocked-legged mother captured its heart.
"I'd like to win the Belmont, but that horse was awfully tough," Alberts said, referring to War Emblem. "He looked awfully good. If I can run second to him again, I'm going to be awfully happy."