On old home track, `War' could finish big

Breeders' Cup Classic win would redeem reputation

October 25, 2002|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - All it took was one race, and War Emblem tumbled out of favor.

After achieving stardom with emphatic victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, the near-black colt with blazing speed faltered in his most recent race, the Pacific Classic. He was derided as odd horse out in the sweepstakes for late-season riches and fame: victory in the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic and coronation as Horse of the Year.

But yesterday, War Emblem stepped back onto the track where his improbable story began and back onto center stage. His selection as morning-line favorite for the Breeders' Cup Classic tomorrow at Arlington Park surprised some, but not his trainer, Bob Baffert.

"He's got the best credentials, the best record," Baffert said. "He is the Kentucky Derby winner, and people like that. He's a big fan favorite."

War Emblem's appearance on the Arlington track brought the 3-year-old full circle in a whirlwind campaign marked by exhilaration and pathos. He is stabled in Barn 1A, right next to Barn 1, where he first resided when led to the track as an unknown racing prospect.

War Emblem's life changed drastically when he entered Baffert's barn before the Kentucky Derby. But for the first seven months of his life at the track, War Emblem toiled for Bobby Springer, a longtime Midwest trainer and fixture at Arlington's Barn 1.

Springer saddled War Emblem for four victories (the first two at Arlington) in seven races. That fourth victory, a flashy gate-to-wire romp in the Illinois Derby at Sportsman's Park, caught the eyes of Baffert and one of his main clients, the Saudi Prince Ahmed bin Salman.

Prince Ahmed offered War Emblem's owner $990,000 for 90 percent interest, and suddenly War Emblem was leaving his quiet life with Springer and entering the unknown with the high-profile Baffert. Springer had planned on skipping the Kentucky Derby with War Emblem and waiting for the Preakness. Baffert, up to then without a Derby horse, promptly made travel plans for Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.

Yesterday, standing outside Barn 1 waiting for a glimpse of War Emblem, Springer said he had no regrets about parting with him. He said caring for the horse had become a strain, wondering each morning whether this would be the day the colt would require surgery.

War Emblem had chips in both ankles and one knee. Springer said that they were in spots that weren't bothering him, but that chips can flake off anytime and cause trouble.

As intent as Baffert upon having a Derby horse, Prince Ahmed bought War Emblem without examining the X-rays Springer offered to let him see. The prince and Baffert got what they wanted when War Emblem, at odds of 20-1, waltzed home a four-length winner in the Derby.

It wasn't a popular victory. Critics said that the egotistical Baffert and the wealthy prince had "bought" the Derby and that War Emblem had "stole" the race when no one challenged him for the lead. Also, many weren't pleased that the winning owner of the first Kentucky Derby after 9/11 was an Arab.

Of course, that wasn't the horse's fault, and War Emblem began converting critics with an impressive victory two weeks later in the Preakness. Then he was off to New York with the chance to become the 12th horse to sweep horse racing's Triple Crown. After attracting a record crowd of 103,222 to Belmont Park, War Emblem stumbled at the break, nearly falling, and finished eighth.

On July 22, 2 1/2 months after his horse won the Derby, Prince Ahmed, 43, died of a heart attack in Saudi Arabia. Plans for War Emblem stalled. At the last minute, Baffert announced that the Derby-Preakness winner would race Aug. 4 in the Haskell Invitational Handicap at Monmouth Park. Criticism swirled again when it was revealed that Baffert had accepted a $50,000 appearance fee from New Jersey racing officials.

Again, War Emblem redeemed the situation with a first-rate performance, a 3 1/2 -length victory for his seventh win in 11 races. Baffert flew War Emblem back to California, where, he says now, he unwisely ran him against older horses three weeks later in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar. War Emblem acted up in the gate, broke slowly and made a gallant run before fading to sixth.

"That was my mistake," Baffert said. "I think he was getting a little sour on me. He was trying to tell me: Back off a little bit."

Baffert did, giving War Emblem two months off before the Breeders' Cup. This will be War Emblem's last race in this country, and possibly the last race of his career. Japanese breeders bought him for $17 million after Prince Ahmed's death. They may race him once in Japan before retiring him to stud.

Baffert said War Emblem has flourished during the break. The trainer has given War Emblem's jockey Victor Espinoza instructions. War Emblem is a free-running horse who doesn't want anyone ahead of him.

"War Emblem is going to the lead," Baffert said. "I've told Victor not to worry about rating him. Just get him out there and let him take you as far as he can."

That is what War Emblem has done throughout his short but storied career. What could he know, or care, about controversy? His races indicate that all he wants is the wind in his face as he leads the pursuing herd home.

Breeders' Cup

What:Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships

When:Tomorrow

Where:Arlington Park, Arlington Heights, Ill.

TV:Chs. 11, 4, 1 p.m.

Feature race:$4 million Breeders' Cup Classic (post time 5:35 p.m.)

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