Large Belmont field bad news for War Emblem
By Richard Rosenblatt
NEW YORK - Bring 'em on, trainer Bob Baffert says. The more challengers the better for his Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner War Emblem.
Don't worry, Bob, you'll probably get your wish -- but you may not like the ramifications. History says when there's a Triple Crown on the line in the Belmont Stakes, the larger the field the tougher it is to win.
By the time War Emblem makes his triple try on June 8, the speedy black colt could face the largest Belmont field ever assembled with racing's biggest prize on the line.
There could be as many as 15 opponents in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont, ranging from Derby runner-up and third-place Preakness finisher Proud Citizen to Irish-bred Anilin, who has only a maiden victory in England in seven starts.
``It doesn't matter how many run against us,'' Baffert said. ``Going a mile-and-a-half and with his style close to or on the lead, it doesn't make much difference.''
The largest field for a Belmont with a Triple Crown at stake was 13 in 1971, when Canonero II's bid was spoiled by Pass Catcher.
In the 15 Belmonts when the Derby and Preakness winner lost, the average field was just over nine horses (9.3). In the last seven triple tries since Affirmed won in 1978, the average field increased to nearly 10 (9.7).
In the 11 Belmonts that produced a Triple Crown winner, the average field was just over five horses (5.4).
Affirmed in '78 and Secretariat in '73 beat just four rivals in their Belmonts, while Seattle Slew in '77 and Citation in '48 each defeated seven opponents. Sir Barton in 1919 and Count Fleet in 1943 each beat only two rivals to complete their Triple Crowns.
The last triple attempt -- Charismatic in 1999 -- produced a field of 12. In Baffert's previous triple shots, his Real Quiet was second in an 11-horse field in '98 and Silver Charm was second in a seven-horse field in '97.
Some years, it seems there are more trainers who believe anything can happen in a 1 1/2-mile race, a distance horses rarely run.
``The distance is confusing because people that don't have a top horse figure he can go a mile-and-a-half and that warrants him a chance at running,'' said trainer Nick Zito, who doesn't have a Belmont runner this year but has five second-place finishes in the race. ``The trick is to go with a good horse.''
If War Emblem can overcome the large-field bias, he'll stamp himself as the most tested Triple Crown champion ever. War Admiral beat the most challengers (32) in sweeping the Derby, Preakness and Belmont in 1937.
War Emblem has already dispatched 29 -- 17 in his wire-to-wire Derby win and 12 in his three-quarter length Preakness victory.
``I'm sure there are going to be some horses up there at Belmont that are speed horses that might want to go with him, but that's part of the game,'' Baffert said from Churchill Downs, where War Emblem will train up to the Belmont. ``Let 'em come and let 'em try and let's see what he's made of.''
A look at the Belmont prospects:
``It's a three-round fight,'' Lukas said after the Preakness. ``We'll answer the bell for the third round. I know you'd like to see a Triple Crown for racing. I'm going to try to spoil your dreams.''