Cruising in total control, War Emblem wins Haskell

Maryland's Magic Weisner rallies from last to second

Horse Racing

August 05, 2002|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

OCEANPORT, N.J. - The real War Emblem returned to the track yesterday.

With Medaglia d'Oro dominating the Jim Dandy Stakes three hours away at Saratoga and no legitimate speed horse around to challenge his pace, War Emblem raced away from four rivals and became the first Kentucky Derby winner to capture the $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park.

On the lead from the break after an unnerving moment in the gate, War Emblem justified his 3-10 odds and covered the 1 1/8 miles in 1 minute, 48 1/5 seconds to add another prestigious victory to a 3-year-old resume that includes wins in the Illinois and Kentucky derbies, and the Preakness.

Maryland favorite Magic Weisner rallied from last for second, 3 1/2 lengths behind and three-quarters of a length in front of Like a Hero. War Emblem returned $2.60 to win, and the exacta paid a mere $7.60.

It was War Emblem's first race since the misfortune that befell his Triple Crown aspirations at the Belmont Stakes when he stumbled coming out of the gate, tried to rush to compensate and wound up eighth when jockey Victor Espinoza wrapped up on him when his winning chances dissolved.

"I was hoping it was going to be this easy," said trainer and new groom Bob Baffert, who shipped in yesterday morning from his Saturday night wedding California. "It's nice he got that kind of race."

Came Home - whose running style is almost identical to War Emblem's - defected from the Haskell, and three entrants chose to run in the Jim Dandy instead. Then potential speed challenger, Island Skipper, was scratched because of an injury, so War Emblem had it all his way.

On a hard Monmouth main track renowned for favoring front-runners, Espinoza charged to the front, set moderate fractions of :23 4/5 and :47 1/5, picked up the pace and never had to sweat on a steamy day.

There was one anxious moment when War Emblem reared in the gate briefly after having his ear pinched by a starter, but the trouble subsided quickly.

"I told the guy on the gate crew just to leave him alone and he'll settle down," Espinoza said. "The guy listened to me. They did a great job."

War Emblem then broke cleanly, unlike in the Belmont when he almost went to his knees before Espinoza got him running.

Nancy Alberts said Magic Weisner had no such luck at the start, but a temporary setback didn't cost her valiant runner, only two weeks removed from a thrilling neck victory over Wiseman's Ferry in the Ohio Derby.

"When he got pinched out of the gate [by Puck and Mr. Mellon on opposite sides of his No. 4 post], I wasn't happy," said the owner, trainer and exercise rider of this year's most surprising 3-year-old. "There was nothing to do but drop back into fourth. He finished courageously, but I think we'd have been a little closer to War Emblem if we hadn't been pinched."

The ride was the first on Magic Weisner for Mike Luzzi, the former Maryland stalwart who was Alberts' choice after Richard Migliore committed to Iron Deputy in the Jim Dandy. Migliore was involved in a nasty spill in Saratoga's feature and Iron Deputy never finished, while Luzzi picked up his share of the $200,000 Alberts received for second in the Haskell.

"The horse got a little fussy from so much dirt coming back on him and jumped a little bit, but I can't complain about where we finished," Alberts said. "Michael did his best under the circumstances."

Puck and Mr. Mellon tried to apply some pressure up front, but weren't equal to War Emblem's natural speed. Puck, eased after the wire, was thought to have an ankle injury, but checked out OK.

Alberts said she will wait at least a week to determine Magic Weisner's next outing, but that the Travers at Saratoga on Aug. 24 is a possibility. War Emblem is likely headed to the Pacific Classic the next day.

"The Travers is possible," said Richard Mulhall, stable manager for the Thoroughbred Corporation. "But we're leaning more toward the Pacific Classic. It's cooler there, and he loves the track. This heat and humidity take a lot out of a horse."

It didn't appear that way because War Emblem looked very comfortable. "I could feel the power in him, the way he was running," Espinoza said. "I knew nobody was going to catch us."

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