ESPN Horse Racing

The Derby was no fluke
By Ed McNamara
Special to

BALTIMORE -- The colt who won America's most important race proved at Pimlico that he's as tough as he is speedy. War Emblem didn't get an uncontested lead this time and he showed he didn't need it as he earned a shot at the Triple Crown.

Prince Ahmed bin Salman
Jockey Victor Espinoza looks on as owner Prince Ahmed bin Salman kisses War Emblem.
The horse who was purchased by Prince Ahmed bin Salman only three weeks before the Derby will try to become the twelfth horse to sweep the classics and the first since Affirmed in 1978. War Emblem's three-quarter-length victory over 45-1 shot Magic Weisner gave trainer Bob Baffert his third chance to win the Triple Crown in the past six years.

Almost nine months from 9-11, a thoroughbred belonging to a prince from Saudi Arabia will go for the sport's most coveted title in New York. Big doings in the big town. Strange game. Strange world.

"I like my chances," Baffert said after winning his fourth Preakness and second in a row. His other Derby winners, Silver Charm (1997) and Real Quiet (1998), also won at Pimlico but were tormented in deep stretch on Long Island, with Touch Gold denying Silver Crown by three-quarters of a length and Victory Gallop nosing out Real Quiet.

"All three horses are different horses. Third time's the charm. Hopefully, we can get a Triple Crown with this horse. Those fans at Belmont have been packing the place, waiting for us."

The second-biggest crowd in Preakness history, 101,138, jammed funky old Pimlico, wondering if War Emblem is the real deal. He is. The black son of Our Emblem and the grandson of the undefeated filly Personal Ensign didn't get an easy lead but it didn't matter. He rated in second behind California speedball Menacing Dennis as Victor Espinoza tugged hard on the reins, waiting for the moment to send the Derby winner.

Espinoza finally asked the question at the 3-furlong pole and War Emblem said yes, drawing clear into the stretch and stretching his lead to a length and a half over Derby runner-up Proud Citizen at the eighth pole before getting a shocking late challenge from the Maryland-bred gelding Magic Weisner. The runner-up never threatened seriously and War Emblem was safely home 100 yards from the wire.

"I saw a horse coming at him," Baffert said. "I didn't know who it was. I thought it was Proud Citizen. I knew [War Emblem] had gone 22 and change, 46 and I knew they were cooking. That's when you find out how good these horses really are.

"If they're going to win the Triple Crown, they're going to earn it. I'm glad that he handled the pressure, and like I said, he's bona fide."

War Emblem ran 1 3/16 miles in 1:56.36 on a fast track and paid $7.60 for his sixth victory in nine starts, and the winner's share of $650,000 raised his career earnings to $2,891,000. It was his fourth straight win, and he'll be heavily favored at Belmont Park on June 8. Proud Citizen couldn't stay with him, and the best that Harlan's Holiday could do was fourth. Medaglia d'Oro, the wise guy horse trained by Bobby Frankel and ridden for the first time by Jerry Bailey, looked great in the post parade but gave an ugly performance, coming in eighth. more than 17 lengths back.

"I was scared of War Emblem from the start," Frankel said. "We were in a perfect spot early. The horse just backed up."

Salman and Baffert will get a shot at the elusive Triple Crown a year after many thought they would win it. Point Given's inexplicably bad fifth-place finish in the Derby canceled that dream immediately, and when he dominated the Preakness and the Belmont, it made that defeat even more painful.

"Before the Kentucky Derby [this year], I was very, very nervous," Salman said. "And then I won, I was very happy... So, I hate this horse business five minutes before the race. But I love it afterwards.

"I think this is one of the best investments I ever made in my life, besides buying oil in Arabia."

If the Prince thought he was nervous before the Derby, wait until June 8. For a horseman, it can't get more intense than that. Just ask Baffert.

"I think experience is going to help in that we have gone through this before," Baffert said. "All we have to do is keep War Emblem healthy and fresh and keep Victor healthy. But now the pressure is on for the Belmont. There will be new shooters, more rabbits."

They'll have to catch Baffert's big black bunny, which will be very difficult.

Triple threat: War Emblem wins Preakness

Preakness Stakes results

Magic Weisner's narrow loss is worth celebrating

Mayne: Just another day at the track for Baffert

Finley: Looking like a Triple Crown winner

Cronley: A 'Magic' Preakness exacta