Looking like a Triple Crown winner
By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com
The chart says that War Emblem won the Preakness by a mere three-quarters of a length and his victory came at the expense of a 45-1 shot named Magic Weisner, who wasn't supposed to belong on the same racetrack as these good horses. Take those facts into account and his Preakness win wasn't nearly as impressive as his four-length romp in the Kentucky Derby. But those details only tell a small part of the story.
"I think we all found out today that opinions die, records live," trainer Bob Baffert said. "This horse is for real."
The War Emblem critics -- and there were many -- weren't wrong about how lucky he was to win the Kentucky Derby or that that race didn't necessarily prove what kind of horse he was. Everything went his way that afternoon in Louisville. Seventeen others jockeys fell asleep as Victor Espinoza snuck to the front and War Emblem never received a serious challenge, from the gate to the wire. He had a tremendous advantage, the type that can make inferior horses suddenly look like worldbeaters.
What would happen when War Emblem lost that edge? Was he merely a one-dimensional speed horse who would crack when someone looked him in the eye? Those were the questions he had to answer in the Preakness. Fight off a challenge, show a new dimension, and he would prove that he is a indeed very good horse. But if he wilted under the pressure he would be labeled a fraud and his Kentucky Derby victory would forever be regarded as a fluke.
A stride or two out of the gate it was clear this was not going to be stroll in the park for War Emblem. Only one of the supposed speed horses decided to go for the lead and that was the hopeless longshot Menacing Dennis. Jockey Victor Espinoza knew there was no sense getting locked into a suicidal battle with arguably the worst horse in the race. He played it smart and sat just off the flank of the longshot until ready to launch his attack.
By no means did War Emblem have a bad trip. Thanks to a great ride from Espinoza, things actually worked out quite well. But he didn't get what he had at Churchill Downs–a gift-wrapped victory. All the advantages disappeared. He didn't get the lead. The pace (:22.87, :46.10, 1:10.60) was pretty quick. He had to prove that he didn't have to have to be on the front and could instead be rated. By the time he crossed the wire he had dispelled every single knock against him.
"When the pressure is on, that's when we find out how good they really are," Baffert said. "If he's going to win the Triple Crown he has to earn it. He handled the pressure. He's bona fide."
He is. And who could have ever imagined it?
His sudden success is as stunning as Charismatic's was in 1999. A former claimer, Charismatic won the first two legs of the Triple Crown before falling just short in the Belmont. While War Emblem never ran in a claiming race, he was a non-entity as recently as February 17. That was the occasion when he finished sixth behind Repent at odds of 38-1 in the Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds. He followed that with an easy win at Sportsman's Park over allowance rivals, but beat no one that mattered. Even in the Illinois Derby, where he galloped to a 6 1/4-length win over Repent the prevailing wisdom was also that he won primarily because he enjoyed a perfect and leisurely trip on the front end.
And now, for the third time since 1997, Baffert will head to the Belmont Stakes with a chance to win the Triple Crown. This time he will arrive with a horse who still doesn't seem to belong in the same class with such greats as Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed or any of the eight other Triple Crown winners.
But who or what is going to stop him from winning the Triple Crown? Medaglia D'oro, the horse all the wise guys jumped on in the Preakness, showed that he was an overhyped bust. Magic Weisner isn't going to run in the Belmont, owner-trainer Nancy Alberts said. Proud Citizen has taken two runs at War Emblem and couldn't get him in either the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness. There's no reason to believe he can do it in the Belmont. Including Sunday Break, there will be a bunch of fresh faces in the Belmont, but none seem to have War Emblem's class or ability.
The last unanswered question may be his ability to get a mile and a half. But that's it. If they go after him, he can be rated. If they leave him alone, he'll steal the Belmont just like he did the Kentucky Derby. There's no doubting his talent. The next Triple Crown winner? The Preakness is over and now, and only now, does it look like a distinct possibility.