Sunday, May 05, 2002

A stun for the Roses


War Emblem an improbable Derby champ

By Neil Schmidt, nschmidt@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

128th KENTUCKY DERBY
field
Jockey Victor Espinoza, aboard War Emblem, is triumphant as he wins the 128th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.
Derby photo gallery
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        LOUISVILLE — For Bob Baffert, the bloom was off the rose. A garland of roses would be unthinkable.

        But the man who had fallen out of favor with media and horsemen at his favorite event, who four weeks ago didn't have a Kentucky Derby horse, met up with a colt who also wasn't supposed to show up here Saturday. They made quite a match.

        Baffert trained War Emblem just 23 days in preparation for his star turn Saturday at Churchill Downs, when the 20-1 shot shocked the racing world by winning wire to wire. With Victor Espinoza aboard, the colt pulled away from Proud Citizen for a 4-length victory in 2:01.13. Perect Drift finished third.

        The ubiquitous Baffert, who has now won three Derbys in six years, was humble and reserved in what could have been an I-showed-you celebration.

        “This game is about luck,” Baffert said. “We're fortunate, and it just worked out this way.”

        Four weeks ago, War Emblem was a middling talent being trained by Frank Springer. A few days later, after winning the Illinois Derby but still being pointed away from Kentucky, the colt was sold to Prince Ahmed Salman, who handed him to Baffert.

        War Emblem went off at 20-1, the ninth choice in an 18-horse field — only two horses the previous 19 years won the Derby with longer odds. No horse in modern times who had been sold after his final prep had ever won the Derby. No horse had gone wire-to-wire in this race since Winning Colors in 1988.

        “With this race, there's a mystique about it,” Baffert said. “It was our turn. We were supposed to buy this horse. It all comes down to fate.”

        Baffert said he has a new appreciation for the fickle nature of racing luck. Last year he and Salman brought Point Given to Louisville as a huge favorite, but the eventual Horse of the Year finished fifth.

        This year, Baffert nominated 14 horses for the Derby, none of whom made it to the starter's gate. (Danthebluegrassman, originally ruled out, then entered late, wound up out when he scratched Saturday morning.)

        “It was a really humbling experience last year,” Baffert said. “I walked up here like, "This is going to be a piece of cake.' And after that, it made me (think), "This is a really tough race.' You've got to be so lucky.”

        Baffert has won seven of the past 16 Triple Crown races. He has won the earnings title the past four years, and he won three consecutive Eclipse Awards as the nation's top trainer from 1997-99.

        With two Derby victories and a runner-up between 1996 and '98, the eminently quotable trainer became a media darling and fan favorite. But things started to sour here in 2000 when there was backlash to his sexist quips about female trainer Jenine Sahadi.

        He had the favored entry of General Challenge and Excellent Meeting fall shy here in 1999, then Point Given fail last year. When he got to Churchill this spring, he seemed nearly forgotten on the backside. Churchill officials had taken down the large signs on his barn that commemorated 1997 and '98 Derby winners Silver Charm and Real Quiet, and then they couldn't find them.

        After Prince Ahmed bought War Emblem, Baffert was lampooned in a Daily Racing Form cartoon that showed a horse falling from the sky into his lap. Then he came under fire this week for his surprise, last-minute entry of Danthebluegrassman. That bumped Windward Passage, angering many members of that horse's ownership group who had flown in for the post position draw, unaware of Baffert's doings.

        Baffert admitted he was losing the enjoyment of talking to the press, which had grown critical of him. Saturday night, Baffert was careful to credit Springer, who had shared advice with him since the colt's sale, and downplay his own efforts.

        But Baffert clearly recognized this colt's strength: a free-running style.

        “Some horses just feel more comfortable on the front, and there's no use fighting them,” Baffert said.

        As a 2-year-old, War Emblem performed best when he secured a lead early. In February, Springer wanted to teach him to settle back of the pace to save speed for later, but the colt finished a distant sixth in the Risen Star on Feb. 17.

        Springer turned War Emblem loose in his next start, and he scored a front-running victory by 10 3/4 lengths. Three weeks later he won the Illinois Derby by 6 1/4 lengths in gate-to-wire fashion.

        War Emblem's then-owner, Russell Reineman, said he planned to skip the Derby. “If you don't belong, stay the hell away,” he said. “You need to leave it to horses that belong there.”

        Salman, eager for another Derby starter, wanted to give him a shot. On April 10, he paid more than $900,000 for a horse for which Reineman originally paid $20,000.

        “I knew Bob Baffert was a genius,” Prince Ahmed said.

        Baffert was gracious in thanking Prince Ahmed, one of his most loyal clients.

        “I wish I could win it for every client I've had,” Baffert said. “But it seems like the guys who have been with me a few years, they seem to win it. Mike Pegram, I won it for him. Bob Lewis. Now the prince, I win it for him.

        A pause for effect.

        “So, sign up now.”

       



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