Tuesday, May 07, 2002

Second-guessing the decision to sell War Emblem

AP Sports Writer

        LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Three weeks ago, selling War Emblem seemed the right thing to do for trainer Bobby Springer and owner Russell Reineman.

        It sure doesn't look that way now.

        Indeed, Springer and Reineman have spent most of their time since War Emblem's stunning wire-to-wire victory in the Kentucky Derby explaining how they let him get away.

        “The phone calls haven't stopped,” Springer said Monday. “It's been chaotic.”

        Instead of traveling to Louisville, both he and Reineman had small Derby parties at their homes in suburban Chicago. So they were left to watch on TV while War Emblem became trainer Bob Baffert's third Derby winner in six years.

        Springer never has had a Derby entrant. Reineman, an owner since 1960, has run only one horse in the race: Wise Times, ninth in 1986.

        “The way it turned out, we absolutely regret it,” Springer said. “But we have no regrets on why we wanted to do it and the reasons it was done.”

        On April 6, War Emblem easily beat favorite Repent to win the Illinois Derby at Sportsman's Park. Still, that performance wasn't enough to convince Springer that his front-running bay colt was ready to compete at Churchill Downs.

        “Mr. Reineman and I felt like the only way a horse needs to be in the Kentucky Derby is if he's got the potential to win it,” Springer said. “He beat a good horse in the Illinois Derby, but the Kentucky Derby is a whole different ballgame.”

        War Emblem likes to charge to the early lead, and Springer didn't think that style would hold up in the 1 1/4-mile Derby.

        His doubts sprouted from last year's race, when a fast track yielded the speediest half-mile and three-quarter mile fractions in Derby history. Monarchos won in 1 minute, 59.97 seconds, slower only than Secretariat in 1973.

        “If the fractions would've been like last year with the pace as it was, it would've been very questionable whether he'd even be in it,” said Springer, a trainer for more than 25 years.

        He also worried about the big Derby field.

        “The Illinois Derby was seven horses. The Kentucky Derby — you're talking about 18 or 20,” Springer said. “If he doesn't get away clean, then what happens?”

        A week after the Illinois Derby, Baffert called Springer, and Prince Ahmed Salman's Thoroughbred Corp. offered $900,000 for 90 percent ownership of the colt. Reineman retained 10 percent.

        Springer bought the colt for $20,000 at the 2000 September Yearling Sale.

        The trainer told Reineman that Salman's offer was a good deal. The 84-year-old Reineman, who owns Chicago-based Crown Steel, didn't hesitate.

        “The steel industry's been so lousy the last couple of years, I decided I could use the money,” Reineman said. “Bobby told me to sell the horse, so I sold the horse.”

        Baffert talked to Springer shortly after the sale was completed.

        “The first thing I told him was War Emblem was a handful to deal with,” Springer said.

        After winning the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, Baffert said that Springer “told me every little bad thing and he really helped me get to know this horse in a hurry. He gave me all his thoughts, all the things that he told me about. So we worked with the horse, and I just changed a few things.

        “That's one thing about good horses. It doesn't matter whose barn they go in,” Baffert said. “They adapt to everything.”

        Once the Derby began, it didn't take long for Springer to realize his former horse was going to win.

        War Emblem burst cleanly out of the gate and went straight to the lead. He reached the half-mile in 47.04 seconds — almost 3 seconds slower than Songandaprayer's record pace last year but good enough to lead.

        “I could see it then. The way they were letting him go, I knew they weren't going to catch him,” Springer said.

        When War Emblem charged to his four-length victory over Proud Citizen, Springer had mixed emotions.

        “You always hope for a win like that, but it was bittersweet,” he said.

        Baffert called him 30 minutes after the race.

        “He just said, 'Congratulations.' We were both happy. It's like one of your children succeeding,” Springer said.

        Reineman also stands to get a chunk of a $1 million bonus Sportsman's Park promised if a horse won both the Illinois and Kentucky races.

        Springer won't walk away empty-handed, either. Baffert promised Springer half of his take from the bonus.

        “I'm never happy to sell a horse,” Reineman said, “but maybe some day, he'll come back and be a great sire for all of us.”


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