Here was a fairy tale on fast forward, a Kentucky Derby dream
conceived and delivered in just 23 days. Lifetimes can be spent
in futile pursuit of the May roses, yet this was satisfaction at
light speed. It was the product of a cash transaction between a
wealthy Arab prince in desperate need of a fast horse and an
octogenarian Chicago businessman in equally desperate need of
money to pump up his flagging enterprises. Supply and demand.
Somewhere the Derby gods are crowing at their own capriciousness.
Last Saturday afternoon, beneath the twin spires of Churchill
Downs, a swift, cantankerous 3-year-old colt named War Emblem
stole the 128th running of the Derby with the race's first
wire-to-wire win in 14 years. It was a victory flush with
significance. Saudi prince Ahmed bin Salman of the Thoroughbred
Corporation became the first Arab to own a Derby winner, thus
finishing first in the high-stakes race within a race against
Godolphin Racing of Dubai, which has spent hundreds of millions
of dollars chasing the same goal. "I am proud to be the first
Arab," said Prince Ahmed as he was hustled through the crowds by
a small battery of bodyguards. Cultures clashed endearingly as
Kentuckians thrust souvenir mint julep glasses at Prince Ahmed
for his signature and shouted their approval. Congratulations,
The Derby victory was the third for trainer Bob Baffert, making
him just the sixth man in history to complete the hat trick. It
was no ordinary win, even by this race's elevated standards.
Baffert, who won in 1997 with Silver Charm and in '98 with Real
Quiet, spent this Derby week in a defensive crouch. First, he
sheepishly went about validating the presence in his Churchill
barn of a long-shot colt he had never laid eyes on until the
prince bought him for nearly a million dollars on April 11. Then
he was assailed by the media when his entry of a second colt
bumped another, possibly stronger, contender from the field of 20
at the last minute. In a final twist War Emblem went off at 20-1
odds on Saturday, just one year after the brilliant Point Given,
also owned by the Thoroughbred Corporation and trained by
Baffert, had gone off as the 2-1 favorite--only to finish fifth.
(Point Given went on to win the Preakness and the Belmont.) "Who
gets lucky and has that great horse land in his lap?" he had said
two days before the Derby.
As it turns out, that was Baffert.
This surreal story began in early April, on a cool, smoggy
California morning. Three days before the Santa Anita Derby, the
top West Coast prep, Baffert stood on concrete grandstand risers
at Santa Anita Park. "You've seen the movie Panic Room?" he
asked. "I've got my own panic room. Four weeks before the Derby
we're panicking, trying to find a Derby horse." That weekend, he
would run Danthebluegrassman, who seemed to be his last hope.
"Right now is a good time to sell a horse if you've got a
mediocre 3-year-old," Baffert continued that morning. "Day after
the Derby you won't be able to find a buyer. Right now people
have money and they're looking to buy. It's like Super March
Madness in April."
Danthebluegrassman finished last in the Santa Anita Derby, but
that was not the most significant event in Baffert's universe on
April 6. Just before that race he stood in the Santa Anita
paddock and watched on a television monitor as War Emblem got
loose on the lead in the Illinois Derby and crushed Repent, at
the time one of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby. Baffert
wasn't the only one watching: Prince Ahmed gets ESPN at home in
Riyadh and also saw the race. On Sunday two calls were made: one
by Baffert to the Daily Racing Form to ask what Beyer Speed
Figure War Emblem had earned in Illinois (it was a freakishly
high 112) and the other by Prince Ahmed to Richard Mulhall, a
former trainer who's now the Thoroughbred Corporation's
California-based racing manager. "I saw that race, and I wanted
to know if we could buy this horse," said Prince Ahmed. Mulhall
then contacted Baffert, who in turn contacted Don Brauer, a
bloodstock agent in south Florida.
It was not the first time this spring that Baffert and Brauer had
talked about buying a 3-year-old. "I've known Bob for 14 years,"
says Brauer. "We had been having discussions once a week or so,
evaluating the various prep races." War Emblem was owned by
84-year-old Chicago steel executive Russell Reineman, with whom
Brauer had previously done business, so Brauer called with a
question: Was the horse for sale?
For some, the decision might have been excruciating. After all,
War Emblem's Illinois Derby performance was good enough to earn
him a trip to Louisville, though after the race both Reineman and
trainer Bobby Springer had said publicly that they were in favor
of skipping the Derby. "To tell you the truth," Springer says
now, "I started thinking about the Kentucky Derby right after the
Illinois Derby." Reineman has been in the racing game since 1950
and been to the Derby once, when Wise Times finished ninth in
1986. This could be his last chance.
There were other urgent issues. Reineman still rises at 5 a.m.
and goes to work every day. His wife, Marion, died 28 years ago,
and business is his passion, although in recent years his
company--Crown Steel Sales, Inc. in Chicago--has struggled. "My
steel company is losing money," says Reineman. "My horse business
has lost money for the last two years. It's never easy to sell a
horse, but in life you sometimes make tough decisions for
Four days after the Illinois Derby, Baffert and Mulhall watched
War Emblem work out in Lexington, Ky. Springer told them that the
colt had bone chips in both ankles and possibly his left knee and
that he feared each workout might be his last. Undeterred,
Baffert didn't even have the colt examined by a veterinarian. "I
didn't want to know," he says. It was agreed that day that the
Thoroughbred Corporation would buy 90% of War Emblem for
$900,000; Reineman kept 10%. The deal was completed on April 11,
and Baffert began pointing War Emblem toward the Derby.
What did the prince's money buy? "An ambitious, ornery colt,"
says Springer. "A colt who likes to mess with you. Some days you
put the bridle on him, he won't do a thing." But he can run.
Baffert saw that. "He's a little mean, but he's got a long,
beautiful stride," Baffert said before the Derby. "Plus he's
smart and tough. Only problem is, he's the first Derby horse I've
had that's a little one-dimensional." (Meaning: He's a natural
front-runner, which can be deadly in the Derby but bodes well for
the May 18 Preakness, where Pimlico's shorter distance and
tighter turns favor horses on the lead.)
Until his late entry of Danthebluegrassman embroiled him in
controversy, Baffert found little audience for his bons mots.
There were other stories to tell. Over in Barn 10 local boy Kenny
McPeek had favorite Harlan's Holiday, a broken foot and a wife
who had beaten cancer. At Barn 45, where the Godolphin horses
reside behind awnings that are always pulled low, Essence of
Dubai would emerge each morning attended by a phalanx of handlers
in blue windbreakers. Eighty miles away at Keeneland, Breeders'
Cup Juvenile champion Johannesburg and Castle Gandolfo, both
shipped in from Ireland, were still shrouded in secrecy.
The Derby was far less complicated. Ridden by Victor Espinoza,
War Emblem was in front from the gate and allowed to lead
through leisurely fractions of 23 1/5 seconds and 47 flat.
"Forty-seven is pretty soft for good horses," said jockey Jerry
Bailey, aboard Castle Gandolfo, who would finish 12th.
The slow pace compromised the race's closers, but none fired
anyway. War Emblem opened up in the stretch--"When I saw him at
the top of the lane," Baffert said later, "it was like I had had
him all the time"--and cruised home four lengths ahead of Proud
Citizen, who was brought to Kentucky by D. Wayne Lukas, another
celebrity trainer with seemingly no shot. The Baffert-Lukas
exacta paid a startling $1,300.80. Prince Ahmed said he did not
bet on his horse, but his score was nonetheless huge. U.S.
horsemen have grown accustomed to seeing foreign horses win
Breeders' Cup races but have taken solace in the invaders'
inability to win the Derby.
For two decades Arab interests (led first by Godolphin and joined
in 1994 by the Thoroughbred Corporation) have aggressively bought
young horses, focusing recently on preparing them for the Derby.
This breakthrough came by different means--a bold, expensive play
less than a month from the race. "Almost every year I've been in
the business, I've had people try to buy horses from me for the
Derby," says Bob Lewis, owner of Derby winners Silver Charm in
'97 and Charismatic in '99. "And I've sold several. The
difference in this case is that the horse won. That never
happened with any of the horses I sold."
Credit Baffert for quickly adjusting to a rancorous horse and
getting him ready. Give Springer an assist. "I knew he had the
race won before they got to the first turn," said Springer, who
watched the Derby in Chicago. "Once they let him loose, it was
over." To reward Springer for his substantial role in War
Emblem's preparation, Baffert will give him half of his 10% share
of the $1 million bonus for winning both the Illinois and
Kentucky derbies, a cut of $50,000. What will happen to the rest
of the bonus was less clear as, on Monday, Reineman seemed ready
to stake a claim to as much as half of it. Two days earlier,
however, after watching the Kentucky Derby for the first time via
a televised replay at 9 p.m. in Chicago, Reineman had sounded
philosophical. "I won the Derby today," he said. "At least I won
10 percent of it. As for the rest, you can't change what you have
Three hundred miles away Baffert and Prince Ahmed stepped onto a
stage in the Kentucky Derby Museum, a building that exists as
homage to America's most important horse race. They had taken the
path not usually run to get here. "Other years I raised horses to
win the Kentucky Derby," the prince had said earlier, breaking
into laughter. "This is different. This is the easy way." The men
embraced, and applause washed over them. The easy way counts
colt he hadn't laid eyes on until April 11.