War Emblem denied

Posted: Sunday, June 09, 2002

NEW YORK -- The start was the end of War Emblem's run for a Triple Crown, a stumble out of the gate that nearly dropped the black colt to his knees.

And just like that, the front-runner was behind in the Belmont Stakes. And just like that, trainer Bob Baffert came up short again in this third try to win racing's most coveted prize.

Instead, the winner was Sarava, who beat Medaglia d'Oro by a half length on Saturday and, at 70-1, became the longest shot to take the Belmont in its 134-year history.

''We were doomed,'' Baffert said. ''It was gut-wrenching to have to watch the whole race.''

War Emblem was eased up in the stretch by jockey Victor Espinoza and finished eighth in the field of 11 3-year-olds.

''I said the only thing that could beat us was a bad break,'' Baffert said. ''Victor did the best he could. If I had a walkie-talkie I would have told him to pull up right there. I didn't want him running a mile and a half like that.''

Sent off as the 6-5 favorite by a record-crowd of 103,222 that jammed the grandstand at Belmont Park, War Emblem just ran out of gas in the final turn of the demanding 1 1/2-mile test -- the longest of the Triple Crown series.

But heartbreak is nothing new to Baffert at this track.

In 1997, Silver Charm lost by three-quarters of a length to Touch Gold, and in 1998, Real Quiet was beaten by a nose by Victory Gallop.

''I feel empty,'' Baffert said. ''I feel like I let the fans down. The hardest loss I had compared to this was when I got beat by a nose in the Derby because I never thought I'd get there again.''

Though War Emblem stumbled at the start, he recovered nicely to move into contention entering the first turn, behind Wiseman's Ferry and Medaglia d'Oro. After being boxed in, War Emblem found room on the inside and briefly took the lead for about a sixteenth of a mile, just before the final turn.

That prompted a roar from the crowd, which hoped to finally see a Triple Crown champion after a 24-year wait. But it wasn't to be.

As the field turned into the long home stretch, Sarava and Medaglia d'Oro were in command and Espinoza was already letting up.

The two battled down the stretch before Sarava gave trainer Ken McPeek an unexpected victory.

''I am pinching myself, of course,'' McPeek said. ''Who wouldn't at 70-1?''

Sarava returned a record $142.50 for a $2 bet. The previous mark was $132.10 by Sherluck, who spoiled Carry Back's bid for a Triple Crown in 1961.

War Emblem's defeat leaves racing still aching for its first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, a span that now matches the longest gap between Triple Crown champions. After Citation's success in 1948, Secretariat didn't sweep until 1973.

War Emblem was the eighth horse to try for the Triple since Affirmed won it, and the fourth in the past six years.

Now, with the death last month of Seattle Slew, who won the Derby, Preakness and Belmont in 1977, the sport remains without a living Triple Crown champion.

War Emblem, a black beauty of a racehorse, became the 16th Derby-Preakness winner to fail in the Belmont.

While Baffert was subdued, McPeek was elated.

His Harlan's Holiday lost the Derby as the favorite and earlier this week he was fired as the horse's trainer. So he went for his next best option and pulled Sarava out of his barn.

''I believe that when something bad happens to you, something equally good is about to happen to you,'' McPeek said. ''I'll take it any way I can get it. And I got it.''

Sarava, ridden by Edgar Prado, earned a spot in the Belmont off his victory in the Sir Barton Stakes on Preakness day three weeks ago. Owned by New Phoenix Stable and Susan Roy, Sarava won in a slow time of 2:29.71, more than five seconds off Secretariat's world record.

Sarava, the second longest shot in the field, earned $600,000 for the win, his third in nine career starts.

''The horse was very sharp,'' Prado said. ''He was very calm. We were in good position all the way around. When I called on him, he responded well. It was like a dream come true.''

Medaglia d'Oro, ridden by Kent Desormeaux, had his best race in the Triple Crown series after finishing fourth in the Derby and eighth in the Preakness.

He was 9 1/2 lengths ahead of Sunday Break, followed under the wire by Magic Weisner, Proud Citizen, Essence of Dubai, Like A Hero, War Emblem, Wiseman's Ferry, Perfect Drift and Artax Too.

Proud Citizen, trained by D. Wayne Lukas, was pulled up by rider Mike Smith after the finish line was taken away in a van.

Proud Citizen, second in the Derby and third in the Preakness, had swelling in his right front ankle, said Dr. Larry Bramlage, a consulting veterinarian. Bramlage said the injury did not appear serious.

For Baffert, a Triple try fell into his lap when Saudi Prince Ahmed bin Salman paid $900,000 for War Emblem on April 11 and sent the son of Our Emblem to the trainer's barn at Churchill Downs.

Ahmed, who attended the Derby and Preakness, was not at the Belmont. His racing manager, Richard Mulhall, said the prince had ''family obligations.''

War Emblem, dismissed at odds of 20-1 on Derby day, went wire-to-wire for a four-length victory. Two weeks later, he won the Preakness by three-quarters of a length and became the 27th horse to move to the brink of the Triple Crown.

Baffert, ever the kidder, still tried to find humor in defeat.

''Next time I win the Derby,'' he said, ''I'm heading home.''

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