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For Emblem, history or heartbreak

War Emblem today tries to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978.

By BRANT JAMES, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 8, 2002

[AP photo]
War Emblem has come from nowhere to win the first two legs, but since Affirmed 24 years ago seven have failed to complete the triple.
ELMONT, N.Y. -- War Emblem was an undiscovered star in a nebulous galaxy of Triple Crown prospects when John Ward foresaw his rise in February. Not by name, but by description.

With an undistinguished class graduating to the 3-year-old campaign, the trainer said, the situation was perfect for one unknown to emerge and conquer the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont.

Today, before a crowd of more than 85,000, the cantankerous colt with the smart-aleck trainer, ebullient Saudi prince owner and rising star jockey will make a 11/2-mile dash for immortality in the 134th Belmont Stakes.

If War Emblem can avoid burning out in an early speed duel and fading away to the closers, he could become the 12th Triple Crown winner, the first since Florida-bred Affirmed in 1978.

"I hope it's his day," trainer Bob Baffert said.

Fate was cruel to many of the seven who attempted to become the 12th. Most recently, Charismatic's bid ended in 1999 when he fractured a leg while leading at the eighth pole and finished third to Lemon Drop Kid. Charismatic might have died if not for the efforts of late jockey Chris Antley, who quickly pulled up and grabbed the colt's leg. In 1979, Spectacular Bid stepped on a pin before the race, then jockey Ronnie Franklin tried to chase down rested long-shot Coastal. Spectacular Bid finished third.

All Triple Crown endeavors are laced with equal parts anxiety and emotion.

Baffert needs only to remember the aches of 1997 and 1998. First, Silver Charm and jockey Gary Stevens were run down by Chris McCarron and Touch Gold. A year later, Baffert thought fate was apologizing when Real Quiet and Kent Desormeaux won the Derby and Preakness, but he found it was only teasing when Victory Gallop and Stevens overcame an 11-length margin to win by a nose.

Baffert had proclaimed all week his third try was "about the horse," saying "the sport needs a Triple Crown."

By Friday, he admitted, "Bob Baffert needs a Triple Crown."

Ten other trainers beg to differ.

Murray Johnson has compelling reasons to hope he spoils Baffert's dreams with Perfect Drift, a gelding who has not raced since finishing third in the Kentucky Derby. Johnson not only wants to win because it's his job, he does not necessarily think a Triple Crown is the potion for a sport that has seen its fan base gray and dwindle since Affirmed outdueled Alydar for the Crown.

"I have a different outlook on that," he said. "I think it would be great for racing to have another Kelso, another John Henry, a horse that is around five or six years, competing regularly at a Grade I level all over the world and getting people going everywhere."

Johnson admits War Emblem's story could enliven horse racing, but not the one the public has heard, the one in which Saudi prince Ahmed bin Salman purchases War Emblem for $900,000 three weeks before the Derby and possibly buys a Triple Crown.

"War Emblem came from a relatively cheap purchase, an $18,000 mare," Johnson said of Sweetest Lady. "Anyone can get 10 friends together and get $2,000 and put in a little money each month and go breed yourself a race horse. Most of them come from there. War Emblem's stallion was rejected from Claiborne (Farm) for not being any good. The experts don't know.

"The more people know that, the more people maybe get in the game. But when they see a (prince) come in and spend a million for a horse, and they don't have a million dollars, and all their friends combined don't have a million dollars, it doesn't give them much opportunity to feel like they belong in the game."

The game plan to bring down the front-running War Emblem should be two-pronged. Proud Citizen, who was third in the Derby and second in the Preakness, should team with Wiseman's Ferry to keep the early pace brisk. In the first and only time many of these horses will ever run 11/2 miles, too quick an early pace would sap much of the field. The second phase begins when closers Perfect Drift and Magic Weisner -- second by three-quarters of a length in the Preakness -- make their stretch runs, unless the added distance creates an insurmountable gap. Sunday Break, who skipped the Preakness to train for the Belmont, might have the tactical speed to bide time, wade through the wreckage in the stretch and make a move.

Strategy alone will not decide the race. At some point the pressure could claim a victim, and Franklin proved jockeys are susceptible.

Victor Espinoza, War Emblem's jockey, is Hollywood Park's leading rider and broke through on a national scale by winning the 2000 Breeders' Cup Distaff aboard 65-1 shot Spain. He also had ridden in the 2001 Derby and Preakness.

At 30, he's much more experienced than the last jockey to win the Triple Crown, but there's no preparation for today.

"It's center stage and a lot of fun, particularly because we pulled it off," said Steve Cauthen, who won aboard Affirmed at age 18. "It was Broadway, where you wanted to be. But when you get there, sometimes it's not where you want to be. If you win those first two, there's nothing more pressurized."

Espinoza called the Belmont "just another race once the gate opens," but he wasn't making any predictions Friday.

"I think it's time someone wins a Triple Crown," he said. "I don't know when, or who, but I hope it's me."

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