ESPN Horse Racing

A bad decision of historic proportions
By Bill Finley
Special to

Harry Frazee hawked Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees and the Sox have been cursed ever since. Michael Jordan's high school basketball coach cut His Airness his sophomore year. There's someone out there who sold their Microsoft shares at 4 1/4. And then there's Russell Reineman, the guy who sold War Emblem. Welcome to The Dubious Decisions Club, Russell. You're lifetime membership is guaranteed.

"I'm not unhappy about it," the 83-year-old Chicagoan said. "I hope the horse keeps on winning."

Oh, well, what else is he supposed to say? "Boy, am I stupid. I think I'll just pound my head against this wall until I'm so numb the pain goes away." Jumping off the Sears Tower wouldn't accomplish a thing, though it's something most would have considered under the circumstances.

For the first five starts of his career, War Emblem was just another horse, his potential limited, his value little. He tried stakes company in the Feb. 17 Risen Star at the Fair Grounds and was drilled by Repent. He wasn't that good and he had chips in his ankles. No one possibly could have imagined what was to become. Not Reineman, not his trainer, Bobby Springer.

One of the great misconceptions about this remarkable Triple Crown campaign is that Bob Baffert magically turned around War Emblem. While Baffert has certainly done a good job, it was Springer who somehow transformed the horse from a mediocrity to a monster.

A new War Emblem showed up in a March 17 allowance at Sportsman's Park, which he won by 10 3/4 lengths. Three weeks later he won the Illinois Derby, romping by 6 1/4 lengths over none other than Repent. But Reineman still had no idea what he had. When asked about the prospects of running in the Kentucky Derby, he replied: "I don't want to go if we're not going to have a good chance." The decision was made to pass the race. I guess he didn't think he had a good chance.

"My trainer wanted to run him in the Preakness and not run in the Derby," Reineman said later. "I probably never expected he'd be this great a horse."

Neither did Prince Ahmed Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. But he wanted a Kentucky Derby horse and Reineman wanted a quick influx of cash because both his steel and racing businesses were struggling. Salman offered $900,000 for a 90 percent share in a horse few believed was really that good and had an infirmity. What would you have done?

"My steel company has lost a lot of money over the last two and a half years and my racing stable hasn't been doing great either," Reineman said. "I was happy to make the deal and bring in some income. I'm not going broke, but I'm not like Mr. Phipps, Mr. Mellon or Mr. Duchossois either.

Reineman made only one mistake: he greatly underestimated his horse. But so did everyone else. War Emblem was sent off at 20-1 in the Kentucky Derby and Baffert and the Prince can talk all they want about how smart they are, but they only bought the horse because he was available and both desperately wanted something to run in the Derby. Yet it is Baffert and the Prince who look like geniuses and Reineman who looks like a rube. The truth is that the Prince stumbled onto this horse and has gotten exceptionally lucky.

War Emblem has earned $1.525 million in purse earning since the sale plus the contested $1 million bonus given to a horse that wins the Illinois Derby and a Triple Crown race. A win in the Belmont will mean a $5.6 million payday for War Emblem, whose normal purse earnings would be augmented by a $5 million bonus given to a Triple Crown winner. We're already at $7 million and change and that doesn't take into account his future earnings or his value as a sire. Should he win the Triple Crown, War Emblem probably would be worth about $10 million as a sire.

The good news for Reineman is that he still gets 10 percent of whatever the horse earns, so he stands to still make a nice chunk of change should War Emblem sweep the Triple Crown. The bad news is that every penny of the loot could have been his. Do the math. In six weeks time, War Emblem went from being worth $1 million to a horse that could eventually put as much as $20 million into his owner's already very, very, very deep pockets. Reineman held the winning Power Ball ticket and he never knew it.

On Belmont Day, he will watch the race on television from his living room, but his daughter, Lynne McCutcheon will be there in person. They'll both be rooting for War Emblem. It's easier that way. Don't worry about what you can't change. Don't look back. That's one way to ease the pain.