War Emblem shifts Haskell focus

Baffert-trained colt now favored over `Magic' for today's $1 million race

Horse Racing

August 04, 2002|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

OCEANPORT, N.J. - Little more than a week ago, local favorite Magic Weisner appeared to be sitting pretty for today's $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park.

A pall had been cast over the connections of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner War Emblem after the shocking death of owner Prince Ahmed bin Salman bin Abdul-aziz at the age of 43, and they appeared destined to skip one of the post-Triple Crown races that weigh heavily in the selection of the year's top 3-year-old and perhaps Horse of the Year.

Belmont Stakes runner-up Medaglia d'Oro - who had somewhat redeemed himself for two previous disappointing efforts in the Triple Crown series - was penciled in to run in the $500,000 Jim Dandy at Saratoga Race Course, where he is currently stabled.

Only the remnants of the Haskell's nominated cast remained in a short field, and Magic Weisner appeared to be the class of the certain comers.

Then, the picture changed dramatically. Trainer Bob Baffert received the go-ahead from the Saudi royal family to enter War Emblem, and trainer Bobby Frankel suddenly added Medaglia d'Oro to the lineup.

Rapidly, Nancy Alberts' popular gelding went from the certain overnight favorite to third choice and to an object of lesser attention, the way she prefers. War Emblem now commands the spotlight at 7-5 odds.

Overall, what once looked like a four-horse field swelled to nine for the 35th running of the Haskell, which has a 5:45 p.m. post time.

But that could all be revised again with as few as five vying for the $600,000 share of the purse today. Island Skipper - a potential speed threat to War Emblem - was discovered with an abscess in his left front foot yesterday and is likely to be scratched.

Three others, headed by Medaglia d'Oro, are cross-entered in the Jim Dandy and may skip the race. Such developments would lift Magic Weisner to the second choice behind War Emblem and immeasurably enhance his chances.

Baffert is sounding confident about War Emblem, who has not run since stumbling at the start and lagging in eighth at a Belmont that Medaglia d'Oro seemed ready to take until Sarava came roaring through the final eighth of a mile to win at 70-1.

"After the Belmont we backed off. We were a little worried about him after the bad stumble because sometimes things show up later and an ankle flared a little bit," Baffert said. "But after he got back to California, he started coming around.

"He likes the cooler weather, he has color and he eats so well he kept his weight. He looks really, really great."

The race is likely to be easier on War Emblem than on Baffert, who married his fiancee, Jill, in California last night and is scheduled to take a private plane cross country this morning and arrive in New Jersey in plenty of time for the race.

"I'll probably still have my tuxedo on," Baffert joked. "And, maybe somebody will put cans saying `Just Married' on the back of the plane."

Still, the shiny colt will be asked to carry top weight of 124 pounds, another concern earlier because of the concessions he has to make to his rivals.

"I think he's sitting on a good race. The fans feel like they were cheated at Belmont. I think they're going to get the real War Emblem," said the trainer. "Physically, he looks awesome. Hopefully, you can just draw [a] line through the Belmont."

Meanwhile, Alberts is simply enjoying the ride of the feel-good story of the 3-year-old year with a horse who came out of nowhere to make a stirring run at War Emblem in the Preakness, finish a solid fourth in the Belmont and win the $300,000 Ohio Derby two weeks ago with a race the trainer labeled `impressive."

"I never expected this horse to be quite this good, so I didn't nominate him to the Breeders' Cup," Alberts said.

Also in the field are Mr. Mellon (12-1), Like A Hero (6-1), Puck (8-1), Easyfromthegitgo (12-1) and Peekskill (20-1).

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