The Test of a Trainer
By Ed McNamara
Special to ESPN.com
It was right there, and then it wasn't. A year later, it happened again. Twice he watched immortality and 10 percent of a $5-million bonus slip away just when he thought he had them. Back-to-back stabs in the back by fate. If Bob Baffert's hair hadn't already gone gray, it would have.
In 1997, Silver Charm was only 50 yards from the finish line at Belmont Park when Touch Gold slipped by on the far outside. In 1998, Real Quiet led Victory Gallop everywhere but at the wire, where the margin was a nose. No trainer ever made consecutive bids for American racing's greatest title, and now Baffert's back again, trying for the Triple Crown. Will his third time be the charm, or will War Emblem become the 16th horse to fail "The Test of the Champion" after taking the Derby and Preakness?
"Those were 11 tough son of a guns that won those Triple Crowns," Baffert said last week. "But everything has to go right for you. But there have been horses that were great but didn't do it -- Spectacular Bid, Alysheba, Silver Charm, Real Quiet. "If you can win those first two legs, you're a great horse. But you have to have that luck to get that third leg. You've got to overcome everything, so that means you've got to be the superior horse."
War Emblem has been the only member of this 3-year-old generation to distinguish himself, cruising to a shocking romp in Louisville and overcoming a legion of skeptics and a quick pace at Pimlico. Yet even if the front-running black colt gets things his own way, destiny has a knack for cutting down all but the great ones in the grand finale.
It's been a long time since American thoroughbreds were bred to go a mile and a half, and sometimes the distance gets the would-be superstar. Sometimes it's a bad trip, sometimes an injury, and sometimes a lesser horse runs the race of his life. There are so many ways to hit the wall in those exhausting two and a half minutes.
No one knows better than Baffert what can go wrong, and he admits the tension can be brutal. Behind his wisecracks and goofy demeanor is an intense competitor who yearns to have it all. With his success has come perspective, and he won't let the pressure make him crazy. Having a third opportunity to win the Triple Crown is a triumph in itself, so Baffert tries to get into what's good.
"Enjoy the moment, because you never know when you might get another chance at it," he said. "I think I appreciate it more each time because there were a couple of years there when we didn't do that well. Going through it the other two times has really helped. It's exciting and I think it just brings the kid out in all of us. It's a good situation to be in.
"I remember Penny Chenery telling me that she wished she had enjoyed it more with Secretariat. She was too intense. She was too uptight the whole time. Really didn't enjoy it.
"And before you know it, it's gone, it's over. Once you hit the wire, it's about over. So you go to New York and have a good time and take it all in because it's a great experience."
It's much easier to be philosophical nine days before the race. Late on Saturday afternoon at the big horse park on Long Island, Baffert and jockey Victor Espinoza will be in Stress Central before the 134th running of the Belmont Stakes. "I'm in a position now that's a little scary," Baffert said. "I'm responsible for this magical horse . and you have to have him right on game day."
Baffert, the leading figure in the Triple Crown for the past six years, knows what those situations are about. Espinoza is a relative newcomer to the days when the world is watching. The 30-year-old Mexican never had a Grade I win or a Triple Crown mount until two years ago. He's made the most of his few chances in the classics, finishing out of the money only once in six tries. Last year, he was third in the Derby on Baffert's Congaree and second in the Preakness and Belmont on Nick Zito's A P Valentine.
Yet Baffert took Espinoza off Congaree after the Derby, and Espinoza wasn't his first choice to ride War Emblem after Prince Ahmed bin Salman purchased the colt 23 days before the Derby. Espinoza has by far the lowest national profile of the last five jockeys to go for the Triple Crown. Even though he has ridden War Emblem flawlessly, you get the feeling that Baffert would prefer to go to war with somebody more experienced, such as Hall of Famers Jerry Bailey, Chris McCarron or Gary Stevens.
When asked about Espinoza's greatest asset, Baffert mentioned his athleticism, not exactly a ringing endorsement. He added, "He's a student of the game, and he rides every day with the best jockeys in the world."
Neither Baffert nor Espinoza wants to be in the other's position. "Victor's riding this horse with so much poise," Baffert said. "He has to have the confidence in [him]. He's got to keep him out of trouble and give him the chance to do his thing, but that's a lot of pressure to put on a jockey."
Espinoza, a pleasant, easygoing man, said, "I don't think I want to be in Bob's situation to have that responsibility to get this horse ready for the next race. I don't want to have the trainer's pressure."
The rider said he wasn't concerned about getting big-race jitters. Maybe he's just a cool cat, or maybe he was whistling past the graveyard.
"I don't worry about pressure and I don't worry about what they think," said Espinoza, who has no doubt he will be on the best animal Saturday.
"I think he's one of the best horses in the world," he said. "There aren't many like him. He breaks running and he finishes running. It's an unbelievable power that he has."
It will be a wild scene when racing's most coveted and most elusive title will be on the line. A crowd of more than 70,000 is expected at the biggest track in North America, and most will be rooting hard for War Emblem to earn the first sweep since Affirmed in 1978. "I feel the same way as the people who are anticipating the race. I'm dying to see what that big, black son of a gun does that day also," Baffert said. "I'm hoping he puts on the same show that Point Given did last year. So I'm really getting pumped."
When the gates open, Baffert's four straight wins in the Preakness, Belmont and Derby won't exist for him. All that will matter is what War Emblem does. For those who seek the summit, reaching it is an incomparable high, and anything less is devastating. But not for long. No matter what happens Saturday, Baffert will try to scale the mountain again next spring. Up at the top is the only air he wants to breathe.