Saturday, May 04, 2002

Baffert wins another Derby with War Emblem

Front-runner runs away, never challenged

AP Racing Writer

Jockey Victor Espinoza, aboard War Emblem, is triumphant as he wins the 128th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.
(AP Photo/Al Behrman)
        LOUISVILLE, Ky. — War Emblem did what was expected at the start and then sprang a surprise at the finish: Bob Baffert's colt went wire to wire and won the Kentucky Derby on Saturday.

        The trainer, “horseless” just three weeks ago, was lucky enough to have War Emblem land in his barn when Saudi Prince Ahmed Salman bought the dark bay after he won the Illinois Derby.

        The victory at Churchill Downs was Baffert's third in the last six Derbys; he won with Silver Charm in 1997 and Real Quiet in 1998.

        War Emblem, as expected, set the pace in the 1 1/4-mile Derby, and never let go of the lead. He became the first Derby winner to lead from the start since the filly Winning Colors in 1988.

        Ridden by Victor Espinoza, War Emblem won by four lengths over Proud Citizen, trained by D. Wayne Lukas, with Perfect Drift three-quarters of a length back in third. Medaglia d'Oro was fourth.

        War Emblem, who won his fifth race in seven career starts, covered the distance in a speedy 2:01 — seventh-fastest in Derby history. The record belongs to Secretariat at 1:59 2-5 in 1973.

        Espinoza, a first-time Derby winner, said he knew he had the race won at the half-mile pole.

        “He was going so easy. I knew nobody was going to catch me,” he said.

        He said Baffert told him to be patient and not make his move too soon. Of course, it didn't turn out that way.

        “He told me to come from the gate clean and don't move until the last minute. I think he told me that a thousand times. Finally, he was right,” Espinoza said. “He really impressed me how his legs moved so smoothly and so easily.”

        The win was a sweet one for Baffert. He was denied a Derby win last year with the favored Point Given, who went on to take the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.

        “I told the prince, 'I owe you a Derby after last year,”' Baffert said. “... The prince kept saying, 'Pinch me, Pinch me. Is this really happening?' ”

        Despite the late scratches of Wood Memorial winner Buddha and Baffert's long-shot Danthebluegrassman, the field of 18 3-year-olds was one of the most wide open in years.

        With no designated super horse like Point Given or Fusaichi Pegasus to grab the bettor's fancy, Harlan's Holiday and Saarland went off at co-favorites at 6-1 — the highest odds ever for Derby favorites. In 1999, Baffert's entry of Excellent Meeting and General Challenge went off at 4.80-1.

        Unlike other Derbys, there was little backstretch buzz during the week, with enough storylines to keep crowds around the barns to a minimum. Not even Baffert or Lukas drew their usual large audiences.

        Security was apparent at almost every turn Saturday, with National Guardsmen and police weaving in and out of crowds of racing revelers.

        On a sunny and breezy day, a crowd of 145,033 came to wager in one of the best betting Derbys in years. The crowd was the fifth largest in Derby history.

        Heightened security has become a fact of life at major sports events since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and the Derby was no different. Six New York City firefighters were honored before the race.

        War Emblem returned $43, $22.80 and $13.60. Proud Citizen, who earned his spot by winning the Lexington Stakes, paid $24.60 and $13.40. Perfect Drift paid $13.40 to show.

        Request for Parole was fifth, followed by Came Home, Harlan's Holiday, Johannesburg, Essence of Dubai, Saarland, Blue Burner, Castle Gandolfo, Easy Grades, Private Emblem, Lusty Latin, It'sallinthechase, Ocean Sound and Wild Horses.

        During the week, Baffert said all he could do was train War Emblem aggressively and hope the front-runner could hold off the competition.

        “If this horse wins the Derby, it will be the best and shortest training job ever,” Baffert said before the race.

        With yet another win in the Derby, Baffert joined Max Hirsch and “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons as three-time Derby-winning trainers. Only Lukas and Ben A. Jones have more, with six.

        War Emblem broke cleanly from the gate and was followed by Proud Citizen and Perfect Drift. By the time the leaders hit the half-mile pole, it looked as though there was no catching War Emblem.

        “He had so much horse,” Perfect Drift's jockey, Eddie Delahoussaye, said. “If it had been a neck, I might have had a legitimate claim, but his horse drew away. That horse had his way all the way around.”

        Harlan's Holiday, who came into the race with six wins and four seconds, was never a factor, falling behind at the start and never firing around the far turn as he did in winning the Florida Derby and Blue Grass Stakes.

        Saarland, trained by Shug McGaughey, also never challenged. He is owned by Cynthia Phipps, daughter of the late patriarch of racing's most famous family, Ogden Phipps.

        Of the $1,175,000 purse, War Emblem earned $875,000, boosting his career total to $1,191,000, more than the reported $1 million the prince paid for the colt.

        “Winning the Kentucky Derby has always been my dream,” Salman said. “I would like to thank Bob Baffert. He is a genius.”

        Baffert, meanwhile, was low key all week. He even joked that the signs that used to hang from his barn with the names of his previous Derby winners were missing because they had been sold on E-bay.

        “We sort of came in here through the back door, but we are leaving through the front door,” Baffert said. “We're just glad we were able to purchase this horse and it is a great win for all of us. I told the prince I owe you a Derby after last year; he got his Derby.”

        Baffert, who expects to show up at the Preakness Stakes in two weeks, now has won seven Triple Crown races.


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