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War Emblem: a horse with some real bite

The cocky colt seems to know he should win the big races, and don't get too close to his mouth.

By BRANT JAMES, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 7, 2002


ELMONT, N.Y. -- War Emblem struts the short distance from Barn 7 to the main track at Belmont Park, his black coat shining despite leaden skies.

The would-be Triple Crown champion wears a white saddlecloth with red and blue trim, logos from the Kentucky Derby and Preakness stitched on the side like kills on a fighter pilot's fuselage. His cocky demeanor completes the analogy.

Trainer Bob Baffert takes his turn in the glare a bit later, after his colt's brief morning workout.

Silver-haired and golden-tongued, Baffert is attempting to exude his own swagger.

After watching Silver Charm lose his bid for a Triple Crown in the 1997 Belmont, and Real Quiet do the same in 1998, he said karma owes him one.

It might have come in a kindred spirit.

"I always thought Silver Charm was my favorite," Baffert said. "This horse is the opposite of Silver Charm. He's a tough, black stallion that you turn into a champion. . . . He can be a real (expletive)."

Like his trainer, War Emblem's mouth sometimes makes horsemen angry. His nasty habit of nipping his handlers is so severe it earned him the nickname Hannibal Lecter. "You can be standing there trying to play with him and he'll just nail you," Baffert said. "I guess he's not as hateful as he used to be . . . but every once in a while we need to give him someone to bite."

While stabled at Churchill Downs, War Emblem acquired a taste for a particular groom in trainer Steve Flint's barn, twice nipping him as the groom was working with another horse.

"(War Emblem) got him right before the Derby and then right before we shipped to the Preakness," said Jill Moss, Baffert's fiancee, who helps out with the colt. "Steve Flint asked us if we should send the groom over before we came to Belmont and we said, "Where is he? He's the sacrifice.' The next thing we knew, he was AWOL."

War Emblem was frisky enough after the Preakness to try to take a chunk out of his out-rider's pony. Moss, who never has been bitten by War Emblem, can usually induce the behavior she desires with a mint. Carrots don't work nearly as well. "He sees me coming down the shed row and he tries to get my attention to get a mint," Moss said. "I can pretty much bribe him now."

It wasn't that way when War Emblem came to Baffert's stable after an April 11 purchase from owner Russell Reineman. Whether it was anxiety over new surroundings or his true self, War Emblem was one bad dude.

"The first time he came in, his ears were pinned, he didn't want anyone around," Moss said. "He was very aloof, had that school-bully image."

War Emblem usually gets cranky around 5 p.m., which makes for a great game face during the 6 o'clock posts of the Derby, Preakness and Belmont. Horses have shown the reticence to approach him on the track his handlers display in the paddock. Perhaps the bully swagger translates to his rivals. Perhaps the good ones really do, as trainers contend, care if they win -- especially the cocky ones.

Both the man and the Triple Crown hopeful have overt personalities, Moss said, and both, she added, are misunderstood.

"(War Emblem) is really not as mean as we say he is," Moss said. "I mean, you just have to know how to take him. I think it's kind of the same way with Bob. People think he's abrasive or flippant, but that's just Bob. He does it to take pressure off himself."

Sure, she's going to say that, but maybe it's true.

Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas have been adversaries for six years, since Baffert rose like Lukas from quarter-horse training to dominate in thoroughbred racing. They have taken shots at each other through the media, including this Triple Crown season when Lukas said Baffert was "lucky" and had spent his life "on scholarship."

Baffert answered back, "They don't give scholarships to dummies."

But Lukas said the rivalry angle has been overblown.

"Believe it or not," Lukas said, "you guys think we have a pretty great rivalry, but Bob and I, we sit around and talk, and we're pretty good friends."

Trainer Niall O'Callaghan may be another story. He was the foil for the "abrasive" and "flippant" Baffert on Thursday when Baffert was a guest on Don Imus' morning radio show.

O'Callaghan has said he expects his speedster, Wiseman's Ferry, to press the front-running War Emblem early in the race. Other trainers, like Perfect Drift's Murray Johnson, see that as the way to pull down Baffert's colt.

"Years ago, no one wanted to go a mile and a half for little money," Baffert said on the show. "Now, the Belmont is worth $1-million, so you always get some new faces. When I said this would be a cakewalk, that was after the Preakness, and it didn't seem like there was anyone out there who could run with us early. Now (Wiseman's Ferry) comes in and you know there will be some people out there hoping that he hooks us and softens us up."

Then the kicker: "I told (O'Callaghan) that if all he wanted was some face time on TV, he could have walked with me to the paddock."

"See, that's why people get (expletive) off at you," said Imus, amused at the remark about O'Callaghan.

"Exactly," Baffert said. "But you know, you gotta have fun with it."

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