The two of them came to New York from Kentucky for the Belmont
Stakes, and their horses were quartered in long, green barns
separated by not more than 200 yards of asphalt roadway and
shade trees. Bob Baffert was noisily chasing history; Ken McPeek
was quietly in pursuit of vindication. In early April, McPeek
had entered the long Triple Crown spring with two accomplished
horses, while Baffert had none. So much changed so quickly.
On the first Saturday in April, McPeek's early Kentucky Derby
favorite Repent was trounced in the Illinois Derby by an
unknown, coal-black front-runner named War Emblem. Within a week
Repent was lame and War Emblem was in Baffert's Louisville barn,
famously purchased for $900,000 by Saudi Arabian prince Ahmed
bin Salman of the Thoroughbred Corporation.
War Emblem won the Derby and the Preakness, twice beating
McPeek's other hope, Harlan's Holiday, who had gone off as the
favorite in the Derby. A few days before last Saturday's
Belmont, McPeek was fired by the owner of Harlan's Holiday. Even
before that the trainer was down to the long shot Sarava (owned
by Paul and Susan Roy and Gary Drake) for what seemed a hopeless
Belmont run. Baffert, meanwhile, was determining how best to
make War Emblem horse racing's 12th Triple Crown winner and the
first since Affirmed in 1978.
His plan was perfectly simple. On a thick spring morning, five
days before and 750 miles away from the Belmont, Baffert stood
in the empty stands at Churchill Downs watching horses work. Far
across the oval War Emblem broke into a gallop. "Beautiful
action," said Baffert. "So light, so athletic. I've never had a
horse this talented." Between 1997 and 2001 Baffert had
surrounded the Triple Crown without winning it: Silver Charm
('97) and Real Quiet ('98) took the first two legs, and last
year Point Given won the last two. Strategy had often failed
Baffert, but that could not happen with War Emblem. "No strategy
with this horse," Baffert said that morning. "Get in the gate,
break and go. Break, break, break."
In the echo of those words one of the most dynamic Triple Crown
flirtations in history ended as suddenly as it had begun. At
6:15 on Saturday evening the doors on the Belmont starting gate
rang open. The roar of a record crowd of 103,222 (not including
Prince Ahmed, who remained in Riyadh to attend to what the
Thoroughbred Corporation referred to as "family obligations")
turned almost instantly to a chilling gasp as War Emblem took
one unsteady step then stumbled, falling nearly to both front
knees and then lurching sideways into Magic Weisner before
recovering. "I thought he would fall down for sure," said Victor
Espinoza, War Emblem's jockey. "The ground was gone underneath
The bobble compromised War Emblem beyond rescue. His greatest
asset is a splendid, cruising gait. "He doesn't run, he floats,"
says Larry Sterling, who rode War Emblem in the Illinois Derby.
His greatest liability is an unwillingness to run comfortably
behind other horses. "We like to say he can be rated a little,"
says Baffert's top assistant, Jimmy Barnes, "but face it, he
needs the lead so he can run freely." War Emblem's stumble not
only shocked the horse, but it also forced Espinoza to run him
in traffic for more than half a mile, choking him down with
every stride and sapping his strength. Entering the final turn
of the 1 1/2-mile race, Espinoza gunned War Emblem into the lead
along the rail, but with five furlongs still to run, the horse
almost immediately flattened out, exhausted. Watching from his
box, Baffert had known it was over with the horse's first
misstep. After the race his nine-year-old daughter, Savannah,
asked him, "Why were you shaking your head the whole time?"
For the three weeks after the Preakness, Baffert had fretted
about the Belmont. "He's more confident with this horse because
he's so good, but that makes him more nervous, too," said his
fiancee, Jill Moss, before the race. "He feels like he should
win." Baffert worried that it might be too hot (it wasn't), that
some no-hope horse and jealous trainer might try to cook War
Emblem with speed (we'll never know, but with War Emblem off the
lead, the pace was only modest) or that Espinoza might ride
poorly, as Baffert feels Gary Stevens did on Silver Charm and
Kent Desormeaux did on Real Quiet.
In fact Espinoza was probably blameless. "Horse stumbles like
that, it just happens," said Mike Smith, who rode Proud Citizen
to a fifth-place finish. "The rider can't do anything about it."
With no Triple Crown winner since Affirmed, the record 25-year
gap between Triple Crown winners Citation (1948) and Secretariat
(1973) will be matched when horse racing's ultimate prize is up
for grabs again next spring. "They run these races every year,"
said Baffert. "We'll be here again."
When Baffert returns to Belmont, he'll find that the silks on
the wooden jockey in the infield gazebo have been painted in red
and white to match Sarava's colors. Just as War Emblem was
fading, Edgar Prado swung Sarava right and then outran Medaglia
d'Oro by half a length in a courageous stretch drive. At 70-1 he
was the longest-priced winner in Belmont history and brought
McPeek full circle.
Even after losing Repent, McPeek had been the Kentucky Derby
favorite with Florida Derby and Blue Grass Stakes winner
Harlan's Holiday, and he and his wife, Sue, were the unofficial
first couple of the Churchill backstretch during Derby week.
Theirs was a compelling story: Kenny was a local boy limping
around on crutches, the result of a basketball injury; Sue had
beaten cancer. The two cheerfully handled the hoopla, but when
Harlan's Holiday ran seventh in the Derby, the circus moved on.
Harlan's Holiday was fourth in the Preakness, but on the
undercard that day McPeek saddled Sarava for a four-length win
in the mile-and-a-16th Sir Barton Stakes. McPeek crunched the
numbers from that run, compared them with those of the Preakness
horses and pointed Sarava to the Belmont. "Sometimes you've got
to throw a horse in there to see what he can do," McPeek said.
Four days before the Belmont, Harlan's Holiday owner Jack Wolf
fired McPeek by telephone. "It affected me," McPeek said.
"You're going to lose horses, but I've never lost a horse of
that quality in that way." While large media crowds convened at
Baffert's barn during the week, McPeek was left largely alone.
At post time only Artax Too went off at (slightly) longer odds.
Sarava was never worse than sixth in the 11-horse field and in
the stretch was simply tougher than Medaglia d'Oro. Five weeks
after the Derby, McPeek was at last rewarded.
As the evening cooled outside Belmont's Barn 1 long after the
race, Sue McPeek draped a windbreaker over her shoulders.
"Things didn't happen exactly the way we hoped they would this
spring," she said, "but we've become strong people. You have to
believe that things will work out in the end."
While McPeek quietly celebrated the biggest win of his career in
the twilight, there was little mourning in War Emblem's barn,
where Baffert's family and friends shared beers from a plastic
cooler and Baffert traded laughs with Espinoza. It was a hell of
a run with a horse bought late, beaten by a slip. Only history
"Why were you shaking your head the whole time?"
can do," McPeek said of unheralded Sarava.