War Emblem stumbles in Triple Crown bid
By Ed McNamara
Special to ESPN.com
ELMONT, N.Y. -- For War Emblem, the dream was over at the start. One stumbling stride out of the gate, and his quest to become the 12th Triple Crown winner already had become the wrong kind of history. Bob Baffert had said fate owed him a sweep of the classics, but destiny had a message for him: tough luck again, white-haired wise guy. Maybe next time.
"I am pinching myself, of course," McPeek said. "Who wouldn't at 70-1?"
Sarava was a nonentity until a month ago, when he took the 1 1/16-mile Sir Barton Stakes, a ho-hum event on the Preakness undercard. He won by 4 lengths against nobodies, and it was only his second victory in eight career starts, the first three of which came at minor tracks in England. His odds looked about right when the Belmont started but not when he dug in like a champion in the final grueling furlong.
"I thought he was very much overlooked," said McPeek, who had a high regard for his conformation and his turn of foot. "He went the last sixteenth in six [seconds] at Pimlico. I thought if he could knock out another eighth of a mile in 12, he's right there. We ought to teach some of these handicappers to do a little math."
Maybe, but the result of the Triple Crown finale still didn't add up. The numbers on the toteboard were something to behold, though. Sarava paid $50 to place, $22.40 to show and topped a $2,454 exacta, a $25,209 triple with Sunday Break in third and a $145,334 "Take This Job and Shove It" superfecta with Magic Weisner in fourth.
A Pick 6 carryover of more than $685,000 will bring back many who came to Belmont Saturday hoping to witness history. Left on the floor of the clubhouse and grandstand and blowing around the back yard were countless $2 tickets on War Emblem. They were bought to be kept as souvenirs of a great accomplishment, something that hadn't been done since Affirmed pulled it off in 1978. They weren't meant to be cashed, and when War Emblem faded to eighth, 19 1/2 lengths behind Sarava, they couldn't be.
As soon as War Emblem nearly went to his knees, Baffert had no illusions that he would collect 10 percent of the $5-million bonus for sweeping the classics. The black colt would not morph from a nobody to an immortal in two months. He is the 16th horse to fall in the Belmont after winning the Derby and Preakness and the eighth since 1979. Baffert has trained three of them in the past six years.
"When he stumbled, I knew it was too much for the poor guy to overcome," Baffert said. "I was worried. Sometimes, they can pull a muscle when they stumble like that . I am very disappointed. The fans here did not get a chance to see the real War Emblem."
Once War Emblem was denied the lead, the front-runner couldn't handle it. After almost going down and dropping jockey Victor Espinoza, he bumped with Magic Weisner and was rank for three-quarters of a mile. That he was able to move from a boxed-in fourth to the lead after a mile was a testament to his talent and courage, but at no point did he look like a winner.
"War Emblem's one chink in the armor is if he breaks slow and is in behind horses, he is not at his best," Baffert said. "I'm just glad that didn't happen in the Derby. We just had bad racing luck today.
"This is a great win for Kenny. He had the Kentucky Derby favorite [Harlan's Holiday], and I know what that is like with all of the pressure."
Wiseman's Ferry led for a half-mile in 48.09 seconds but packed it in after 6 furlongs in 1:12.38. He gave up the lead to Medaglia d'Oro, who had tracked in second for Kent Desormeaux. He was still there by a head over War Emblem after a mile in 1:37.01, and then the 6-5 favorite gained a short-lived lead with a move up the rail. Could he do it? That fantasy faded quickly, and War Emblem was done entering the turn.
As he backed up, Medaglia d'Oro regained the advantage and was ahead by half a length over Proud Citizen, who made a brief bid before falling back to fifth. Sarava moved on the outside in upper stretch and hit the front approaching the eighth pole. From there, it was between him and Medaglia d'Oro when Sunday Break flattened out. Sarava edged away inside the sixteenth pole as Prado flailed away with a righthanded whip and got there first by half a length as the stunned crowd howled. The time for 1 1/2 miles was 2:29.71
"It was a great race," Medaglia d'Oro's trainer, Bobby Frankel, said. "He put in a great stretch run but was second best."
Prado said he was following War Emblem until he saw he had more horse than Espinoza did. "I thought I was in a good spot. [War Emblem] moved up nice and then I followed him. He made like an eighth of a mile move, that's it. I followed him, and then I had to get out of there. That's what I did."
Sarava's upset ended Baffert's streak of Triple Crown wins at four, dating to Point Given's Preakness last year. Baffert handled it well, at least on the surface, just as he dealt with the narrow defeats of Silver Crown and Real Quiet in the 1997 and 1998 Belmonts.
"Next time I win the Derby, I'm going home," he said as the media laughed. "I feel very lucky to have found this horse before the Derby. But I feel empty. I feel like I let the fans down.
"The hardest loss I had, compared to this, was when I got beat a nose [with Cavonnier] in the  Derby because I thought I would never get there again. I told Jill [fiancee Jill Moss] that these last two hours before the race we should enjoy ourselves, because there is nothing we can do about it and we never know when we're going to be back."