War Emblem: Reluctant racehorse to Triple Crown threat
As he stands on the threshold of the Triple Crown, it's hard to believe War Emblem was once a reluctant racehorse.
In fact, he didn't even make it to his first race.
On Sept. 8, War Emblem was set to make his debut in the third race at Arlington Park, just outside Chicago. He got only as far as the paddock, where he tossed jockey Alfredo Javier against a wooden post before running 300 yards over a horsepath back to his barn and missed the race.
"A character all right,'' says former owner Russell Reineman, who was watching his colt for the first time when the events unfolded. "Very hard to handle, but I never expected that.''
From a pliant baby to a rebellious adolescent to a potential Triple Crown winner, War Emblem has always been full of surprises.
Who would have thought racing immortality would befall this once picture-perfect thoroughbred weanling as he romped through the lush grass fields of Nukols Farm near Midway, Ky.?
"Never sick a day, never a problem, barely knew he was there,'' says Charles "Nucks'' Nuckols III, who runs the farm with his father, Charlie, and a brother, Jim. "We've checked all the records. Nothing. Turns out we had the easy job.''
It was another month before War Emblem made it to the track. He went wire-to-wire and won by 1 1/2 lengths, but it was far from smooth sailing to the top.
Through victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, he's been one tough hombre to handle -- throwing riders, biting hotwalkers and chomping on outriders' ponies
At Churchill Downs, he charged two hotwalkers the morning he was shipped to Baltimore for the Preakness. After winning the second leg of the Triple Crown, War Emblem took a bite of the pony escorting him to the winner's circle.
"He's an ornery one,'' says Bob Baffert, who took over as War Emblem's trainer three weeks before the Derby. "We've gotten him to relax more, but you can't turn your back on that dude.''
The tough-guy routine started a few months after War Emblem left the 45-acre spread he roamed at Nukols Farm with 10 other yearlings. Born on Feb. 20, 1999, the son of moderately successful Our Emblem, out of Sweetest Lady, Kentucky was his home for nearly 21 months.
He arrived at Webb Carroll's Training Center in St. Matthews, S.C., on Nov. 2, 2000. The center prepares horses for the races -- it's where they are saddled for the first time, learn to wear a bridle, carry a rider and gallop around a track.
All went routinely until War Emblem's six-month stay was nearly over.
"That's when he woke up and became a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed little boy,'' says Carroll. "It was never mean, ugly or hateful. He was just rambunctious, hard to handle, beginning to feel stronger. A mind of his own. Those are characteristics of a good horse, one with a lot of heart.''
Even when he left, Carroll knew War Emblem still had a way to go. But he knew the horse loved to run.
"He was full of energy, with a lot of potential, and he was in good hands with Bobby,'' Carroll says of War Emblem's first trainer, Bobby Springer. "And then he became an absolute handful.''
In his second start, also at Arlington Park, War Emblem tried a mile on the turf on Oct. 20 and finished seventh, 17 1/2 lengths behind the winner. At the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, he won his final 2-year-old race, a $32,000 allowance on Nov. 23.
That's when folks began to notice, and 84-year-old Reineman was ready to sell, his Chicago-based steel company struggling financially. His asking price was a reported $600,000 -- a far cry from the 2000 Keeneland yearling sales, when Reineman tried to sell but no bidders were willing to pay the $20,000 minimum asking price.
Trainer Elliott Walden was among the first to nip, especially after Springer told him War Emblem was a powerhouse-in-the-making. But Walden's veterinarian found a bone chip in each front ankle and one of the front knees, and Walden passed.
A few weeks later, trainer John Ward, who saddled 2001 Derby winner Monarchos, took a look for owner John Oxley. Ward also was worried about the chips, so he passed, too. Oxley later paid $1 million for Booklet, who skipped the Derby and finished 12th in the Preakness.
The buzz about War Emblem died down somewhat after the colt opened his 3-year-old campaign with losses in the Lecomte and Risen Star at the Fair Grounds.
Carroll says War Emblem's lack of focus may have had something to do with the poor performances in New Orleans.
"He probably still wasn't ready to pay attention all the time,'' Carroll says.
War Emblem returned to Illinois, this time to Sportsman's Park, and buried the opposition with a 10 1/2-length win in an allowance race on March 17.
"That's when he made a great impression on me,'' Reineman says. "We knew he had ability, but how much we didn't really know.''
Then came the Illinois Derby on April 6. Baffert was watching the simulcast from the paddock at Santa Anita, with his final Kentucky Derby hope, Danthebluegrassman, about to finish last in the Santa Anita Derby; and Saudi Prince Ahmed bin Salman tuned in from Saudi Arabia.
After War Emblem went wire-to-wire and beat top Derby prospect Repent by four lengths, Baffert's reaction was: "Wow!'' Once Springer then announced War Emblem would skip the Derby and race next in the Preakness.
Baffert and Salman jumped. Baffert talked with Richard Mulhall, racing manager for Salman's The Thoroughbred Corp. Their thoughts were the same: "Can we buy him?''
A sales agent then called Baffert and asked if he'd be interested. Five days after the Illinois Derby -- on April 11 -- Salman bought 90 percent of War Emblem for $900,000 and sent him to Baffert's Barn 33 at Churchill Downs.
Baffert and Springer spoke by phone, and the new trainer found out what the old trainer already knew.
"He's one tough horse to deal with,'' Baffert says Springer told him. "I just know that when I got War Emblem, he looked great.''
Two months later, War Emblem is on the verge of racing history.
"No matter how far you go, he keeps on running and finishes very strong,'' says jockey Victor Espinoza, who first set eyes on War Emblem at the Kentucky Derby. "He has unbelievable power.''
All this from a horse who once refused to run.