Triple Threat War Emblem's blazing victory in the Preakness rekindled hopes for racing's first Triple Crown in 24 years

May 26, 2002

They went to see him 10 days before the Kentucky Derby, when the
end was near for Seattle Slew. The great black champion stood
restlessly in the back of his stall at Hill 'n' Dale Farm
outside Lexington, Ky., 28 years old and tortured by arthritis,
as trainer Bob Baffert and his fiancee, Jill Moss, looked at him
from the shedrow. "It felt almost like a sacred visit," Baffert
would say later, "like meeting Muhammad Ali, or what it will be
like someday to meet Michael Jordan." Mickey Taylor, one of
Slew's owners, took Baffert and Moss into the stall, where they
stroked Slew's coat and stood transfixed by his huge, expressive
eyes.

Thirteen days later, Slew was gone, and not long after that,
Baffert and Moss were back at Hill 'n' Dale. They walked to a
hillside grove of shade trees, where a fresh mound of dirt was
covered with a sheet of plastic--Slew's grave site. Baffert had
just won the Kentucky Derby with a jet-black colt named War
Emblem, and now fate beckoned. Seattle Slew's death left racing
without a living Triple Crown winner for the first time (no
horse has won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont since
Affirmed in '78, a year after Slew's sweep), and now came War
Emblem, a horse like Slew in many ways: bought cheap,
disregarded, yet so very fast afoot. "Maybe there's a reason for
the way things happen," Baffert said that day, his words a
reverent whisper.

Now the noise is much louder. It is the echo of more than
100,000 people roaring as War Emblem impressively won the
Preakness at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, sending him to
the Belmont on June 8 with a chance to become the 12th Triple
Crown winner in racing history--or the 16th horse to win the
first two legs and fail in the punishing mile-and-a-half
Belmont. It is the sound of an ancient, troubled sport that has
increasingly turned to on-track slot machines and video poker
for sustenance, embracing a live creature--"A fast horse," said
trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, whose U.S.S. Tinosa finished sixth
last Saturday, "a super horse"--to carry it, however briefly,
into the sporting limelight. It is the unmistakable siren call
of history.

The dream, much like Seattle Slew's, has sprung from humble
roots. In the spring of 1998, Kentucky breeder Charlie Nuckols
sent Sweetest Lady, an eight-year-old broodmare he managed for
Chicago steel executive Russell Reineman, to be bred to
seven-year-old Our Emblem. The stallion was the progeny of a
1990 mating between undefeated mare Personal Ensign and
supersire Mr. Prospector, a Vanessa Williams-Rick Fox pairing
that produced only a modestly successful horse who won five of
27 starts. "Our Emblem was a decent miler, nothing more," says
Nuckols, 79. "I was hoping some stamina from the Personal Ensign
side might show up, but I didn't have any great plans."

The foal was born at Nuckols Farm on Feb. 20, 1999. A year later
his dam, Sweetest Lady, died of a ruptured aorta while giving
birth; War Emblem would be her last live foal. In the fall of
2000, at the Keeneland yearling sale in Lexington, there were no
bidders willing to put up War Emblem's modest minimum asking
price of $20,000, so Reineman kept the colt. (In 1975 Slew was
bought for a bargain basement price of $17,500.) Scarcely a year
later, War Emblem was racing with a for sale sign on his flank,
as Reineman sought to raise cash for his struggling steel
operation. Plenty had chances to buy.

On Nov. 23 War Emblem won a $32,000 allowance by 4 1/2 lengths
at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, prompting interest from
WinStar Farm CEO Doug Cauthen and trainer Elliott Walden, who
were looking for a Derby horse. At that point, Reineman was
asking $600,000. Cauthen and Walden instructed their regular
veterinarian, Bill Baker of Lexington, to examine the horse, so
in the first week of December, Baker flew to New Orleans. He
called Cauthen around noon and told him, "This is the one. He's
a big, strong, powerful horse, as high-quality a specimen as
I've seen in many years." Cauthen told Baker to call back after
looking at routine X-rays that were taken in the morning.

"There was a [bone] chip in each front ankle and one in one of
the front knees," says Baker. "I told Doug, 'These chips are
going to bother him. How long he can run with them, I don't
know. They'll need to come out eventually.' Doug asked if we
could scope him right away and get him ready for the Derby. I
said I doubted it. So we passed."

A few weeks later, owner John Oxley and trainer John Ward, the
pair that won the 2001 Kentucky Derby with Monarchos, also
considered buying War Emblem. After hearing about the chips,
they took a pass and instead bought Booklet for $1 million.
Booklet didn't run in the Derby and finished 12th out of 13 in
the Preakness. "You bet my owner has questions," says Ward.

It was Baffert, using the money of the Thoroughbred
Corporation's Prince Ahmed bin Salman, who finally bit, shortly
after War Emblem won the April 6 Illinois Derby. Prince Ahmed
paid Reineman $900,000 for 90% of the colt, and on May 4 he won
the Derby by four lengths at 20-1 odds, a win that left a messy
trail. Off the track, Reineman, 84, began agitating for a
portion of the $1 million bonus paid to any horse who wins the
Illinois and Kentucky Derbies. (Last Friday, Thoroughbred Corp.
lawyer Neil Papiano said, "Legally, it's clear we owe nothing;
the Prince is willing to do something.")

On the track, some horsemen took shots at Baffert for getting
both War Emblem and an unpressured lead in the Derby. "Never in
my life has a horse been given to me, ready-made, just sitting
on a win like that," said trainer D. Wayne Lukas, whose Proud
Citizen was second in the Derby and third in the Preakness.

"A lot of guys resent Baffert because he had enough [Derby]
horses, then he had to go out and buy one," says trainer Nick
Zito, who didn't get a horse to the Derby but saddled two in the
Preakness, seventh-place Crimson Hero and ninth-place Straight
Gin, who suffered a bowed tendon and will be retired. "It's
like, You had your chance and you didn't get it done."

"Jealousy," says Baffert. "Sour grapes." In five weeks he has
skillfully worked at the rough edges of an ill-tempered colt,
building on the foundation laid by his previous trainer, Bobby
Springer. War Emblem is so aggressive around the barn that
Baffert calls him Hannibal Lecter. The colt is naturally fast
without sprinting, a rare gift, but Baffert needed to teach him
to relax. To help control him, Baffert put him in a lip cord (a
chain wrapped in leather that runs across the horse's upper
lip). To deal with his temperament, Baffert asked Moss to pamper
him with carrots and mints, helping him interact better with
humans. He treated his ankles with anti-inflammatory medication.

Yet an hour before the Preakness, Baffert leaned against the
Pimlico stakes barn and said, "If we're not in front, I don't
know what will happen." When long shot Menacing Dennis broke
first and went to the lead, forcing Victor Espinoza to tightly
control War Emblem's speed, Baffert noticed his colt fighting
Espinoza and said to Moss, "He's not rating, we're screwed."
Almost immediately after that, War Emblem settled--while
stalking crackling fractions of 22.87, 46.10 and 1:10.60--then
pulled Espinoza to the lead heading to the final turn, full of
run.

In mid-stretch, with Proud Citizen and jockey Mike Smith closing
in, Espinoza hit War Emblem once. The colt dismissed the
challenge--"Once I got to him and saw him dig back in, I knew it
was over," said Smith--then held off Maryland-bred 45-1 shot
Magic Weisner by three quarters of a length. True to his
personality, War Emblem chomped on his lead pony during the
gallop back to the winner's circle, where Prince Ahmed gleefully
awaited him. As he grabbed War Emblem's shank, he shouted, "Can
you believe he kept running?"

To win the Belmont, he must run farther, to a place where only
the sweetest horses in history have gone. In twilight on
Saturday, the colt stood near the stakes barn, regally still as
grooms hosed him down. "They'll be coming after us in New York,"
Baffert said. "Fresh horses, more speed. That's O.K. The sport
wants this. We want this." Steam rose off War Emblem's back,
rising toward a purple sky. The scent of greatness was in the
air, growing stronger.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL FRAKES NEXT STOP, BELMONT War Emblem hit the Pimlico finish line three quarters of a length ahead of 45-1 shot Magic Weisner (left). COLOR PHOTO: HEATHER HALL/AFP EMBLEM-ATIC Twenty-five years after Slew (right) won the Triple Crown, a new black beauty knocks at history's door. COLOR PHOTO: STEWART BOWMAN/THE COURIER-JOURNAL/AP [See caption above]

Now came War Emblem, like Slew in so many ways--bought cheap,
disregarded, yet very fast afoot.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)