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Triple Crown tripped

70-1 long shot Sarava bursts to Belmont title after Triple Crown prospect War Emblem stumbles at start.

By BRANT JAMES, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 9, 2002

ELMONT, N.Y. -- Fate must have felt it owed trainer Ken McPeek. Sarava denied horse racing its first Triple Crown in 24 years and crestfallen trainer Bob Baffert his first in three tries Saturday, as McPeek's relatively unknown horse became the longest shot ever to win the Belmont Stakes.

"I'm pinching myself," McPeek said. "Who wouldn't be at 70-1?" Baffert often evoked fate and how a win by War Emblem would salve his Triple Crown bids snuffed in the Belmont, the most recent in 1998 when Real Quiet was beaten by a nose by Elliot Walden's Victory Gallop.

Baffert did not have to wait for the numbing disappointment this time. The race was practically over for the front-running War Emblem when he bobbled badly at the break from the ninth post, nearly went to his knees under jockey Victor Espinoza and expended his energy making up ground.

"It was just gut-wrenching to have to watch the whole race, because I knew," Baffert said. "This poor horse was trying so hard. He tried to make a race. If I had a walkie-talkie I would have told Victor to pull him up. There was no need for him to go run a mile and a half."

After bumping Magic Weisner, Espinoza managed to split horses by veering inside and working into apparent striking position on the rail. War Emblem got his head in front near the half-mile pole but had nothing left.

Perhaps the colt had given all in winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness; perhaps he pulled a muscle with the awkward start. Either way, he faded to eighth in the 11-horse field as Sarava and jockey Edgar Prado overcame Magic Weisner and Richard Migliore at the 11/4-mile mark and took the lead at the stretch.

Sarava beat Medaglia d'Oro, whom jockey Kent Desormeaux said "ran his eyeballs out," by a half length. Sunday Break was third, another 10 lengths back.

"When I called on him he responded," Prado said. "It was like a dream come true."

Sarava covered the 11/2 miles in 2 minutes, 29.71 seconds. He paid $142.50, $50 and $22.40.

Magic Weisner was fourth, followed by Proud Citizen, Essence of Dubai, Like a Hero, War Emblem, early pace-setter Wiseman's Ferry, second-favorite Perfect Drift and Artax Too.

Sarava is owned by New Phoenix Stable, an American-English consortium based in Kentucky. A bad quarter crack cost him most of the early spring, and his biggest accomplishment was winning the $79,000 Sir Barton Stakes at Pimlico on May 2. Still running on the repair patch, he earned $600,000 for winning the Belmont.

"We knew he was a good horse, we just didn't know where he fit," McPeek said.

A record 103,222 fans packed Belmont Park, but the sentiment was not as pro-War Emblem as Baffert had anticipated. Fans seemed more curious to see if War Emblem could be the first since Affirmed to win a Triple Crown than they were hopeful he would.

Purchased by Saudi Prince Ahmed bin Salman three weeks before the Derby, War Emblem did not have the underdog air of Charismatic in 1999.

And in a city often reminded this week about Saudi involvement in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, at a track where the altered Manhattan skyline is visible, enthusiasm lacked.

Fans had lined the fenceway along the backside tunnel and mashed into the paddock area for a glimpse of Charismatic. They had cheered when he emerged from the shadow of the tunnel.

Saturday, most clapped politely with an un-New York zeal, and a few booed.

Salman avoided the fray completely, detained in Saudi Arabia, according to stable manager Richard Mulhall, for family reasons.

Sarava's victory ended a frustrating Triple Crown season for McPeek, who finished ninth with Pineaff in the 1999 Belmont. McPeek began the Triple Crown campaign with the favorite, but Repent injured himself in the Illinois Derby that made War Emblem a star.

McPeek emerged with the tepid favorite for the Derby anyway, but Harlan's Holiday underachieved after a stellar prep season and finished seventh in the Derby. Harlan's Holiday was taken from his stable by owners Jackie and Laurie Wolf on Tuesday and given to Walden.

Indian Charlie, a ruthless lampoon that circulates before major races, referred to him as "Ken McPeaked" in its Belmont edition.

"I was a little disappointed, and confused," McPeek said of the Wolfs decision. "I was proud of the job we did. I don't know why he left, but that's not mine to worry about."

Baffert seemed to repress tears with pithy quips after the race. It seemed too early for retrospection.

"If I win Kentucky next year," he said, "I'm going home."

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