Baffert horse one win away from Triple Crown
By Richard Rosenblatt
BALTIMORE -- War Emblem didn't lead all the way as he did in the Kentucky Derby, but he still ran away with the Preakness Stakes on Saturday to set up a shot at the Triple Crown in three weeks.
The convincing win, much like his wire-to-wire victory in the Derby two weeks ago, sets up trainer Bob Baffert for his third shot at a Triple Crown in the last six years.
War Emblem, who held off fast-closing long shot Magic Weisner by three-quarters of a length, didn't show up in Baffert's barn until three weeks before the Derby, when the colt was bought for $900,000 by Saudi Prince Ahmed bin Salman.
On June 8, War Emblem will attempt to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978 and the 12th horse to sweep the Derby, Preakness and Belmont.
Baffert, who was out of Triple Crown options before War Emblem showed up, has now won four straight Triple Crown races and eight of the last 17.
The greatly anticipated showdown at the start with speedsters such as Booklet and Table Limit failed to materialize. Instead, long shot Menacing Dennis shot to the front and held the lead. War Emblem, with Victor Espinoza aboard, was second just off the pace. When the field of 13 3 year-olds turned for home, War Emblem moved into the lead by two lengths and began to widen his advantage.
Proud Citizen, trained by D. Wayne Lukas, looked to have second place wrapped up, but local favorite Magic Weisner -- a 45-1 shot -- made a late rush to finish second.
War Emblem covered the 1 3-16th-mile Preakness in a slow 1:56.36.
Sent off as the 5-2 favorite, War Emblem returned $7.60, $6 and $4.40. Magic Weisner, with Richard Migliore aboard, paid $33 and $14. Proud Citizen, ridden by Mike Smith, was third and returned $5.
"It's a shame we ran out of racetrack," Migliore said in what could have been the biggest upset in Preakness history. "He was getting to him really quick."
But like the Derby, nobody could catch War Emblem, who becomes the eighth horse to try for a Triple Crown since Affirmed won his 24 years ago.
After the race, the ornery, nearly black colt still had enough energy left to try to nip the outrider pony who was escorting him to the winner's circle.
Straight Gin, trained by Nick Zito and ridden by Robby Albarado, was ninth and was taken from the track by ambulance with a non life-threatening bowed tendon.
"The experience helps, we've gone through this," Baffert said. "The main thing is to keep him healthy and to keep Victor healthy. He's figured out this horse."
Salman introduced Baffert as "Mr. Genius, Bob Baffert," and told Espinoza, "you can win the Triple Crown."
Asked how he's been received in America, Salman said: "So many people are asking me for photos and autographs. I think I am getting more popular than President Bush."
Harlan's Holiday, seventh in the Derby, improved to fourth on Saturday, followed by Easyfromthegitgo, U S S Tinosa, Crimson Hero, Medaglia d'Oro, Straight Gin, Menacing Dennis, Table Limit, Booklet and Equality.
Medaglia d'Oro, the 3-1 second choice in the betting, didn't arrive at Pimlico until 12 hours before the race, with trainer Bobby Frankel electing to van the colt in from New York.
Chilly temperatures and showers greeted the early arrivals at Pimlico. While it remained in the low 50's all day, the rain ended by late morning and sun broke through just before post time.
Security was increased for Preakness day in what has become a fact of life at major sporting events since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Uniformed guards checked bags and purses at the entrances, but lines moved quickly.
Baffert said his colt handled the pressure like a champion.
"It's just amazing, he gets better and better," Baffert said. "He ... can do anything."
Can War Emblem get the Triple Crown?
"I like my chances, the third time's a charm," Baffert said. "We started with Silver Charm ... If it's meant to be, it's meant to be."
All week, the chatter around the Pimlico stakes barn was about stopping War Emblem from getting loose on the lead and running uncontested around the track. John Ward, the trainer of Booklet, said he was in the race to "ambush" the Derby winner, while Lukas figured he'd send out a speedball of his own in Table Limit.
"It's like we're all dating the same girl and know where the tattoo is," Lukas said.
Were the other trainers conspiring to keep Baffert from winning? "Hey, I got the roses," he said earlier this week. "They're a little late ganging up on me now."
And, now, he's got the Preakness, too.