ESPN Horse Racing

Imposters don't win the Triple Crown
By Bill Finley
Special to

It's awful hard to believe in absolutes in horse racing right about now.

Belmont Stakes
War Emblem (right) stumbles into Magic Weisner (center) as he leaves the gate during the 134th Belmont.
This was the Triple Crown where every time the experts zigged the horses zagged. Just about everyone thought War Emblem was nothing more than a speedball bum coming into the Kentucky Derby and by the time he got to Belmont Park just about everyone was ready to stamp his name on the Triple Crown trophy well before the 11 horses loaded into the gate for one of the most demanding tests any horse will ever face.

The way this Triple Crown twisted and turned made it the most baffling series of races ever run. Fittingly, it was capped off by a 70-1 shot named Sarava, who become the longest priced winner in the 134 years they've been running the Belmont Stakes.

But there is one thing you can take to the bank, year after year, Belmont after Belmont: The undeserving will fail. Repeat after me, "Imposters don't win the Triple Crown ... Imposters don't win the Triple Crown."

It happened again today. Why didn't War Emblem win the Belmont? The stumble at the start didn't help and neither did the little jam he got into down the backstretch, but that's not the reason he was defeated and defeated so soundly. He lost because he was not worthy to stand beside the true immortals of the sport, Citation, Secretariat, Count Fleet, Seattle Slew and the rest. They are great horses. He is a very good horse. We're talking about a very important difference.

I picked War Emblem to win the Belmont Stakes and did so with a great deal of confidence. I reasoned that he was easily the best 3-year-old in the race and that none of his competitors were good enough to defeat him. I wasn't totally wrong. Put these same horses in the starting gate 10 times and a healthy War Emblem would probably win six or seven of those hypothetical races.

But was he a great horse? Was he worthy? Of course, I had my doubts that he was, but I talked myself into believing in some sort of equine fairytale. I dismissed the fact that, unlike all modern Triple Crown winners, he was a nobody at 2 and didn't do a thing until the Illinois Derby. It seemed that he awoke from some sort of slumber in the Illinois Derby and had morphed into Seattle Slew incarnate.

Seattle Slew he is not, but neither was he some sort of overhyped phony. Forget about the fact that he was eighth yesterday, beaten 19 12 lengths. It just wasn't his day and things certainly didn't break his way. With those chips rattling around in his legs and with how badly he ran in the Belmont, there's no telling if he'll have a chance for redemption, but he still the best 3-year-old in the country. The Kentucky Derby and Preakness proved as much.

But none of that mattered on June 8, 2002 when the sport asked him to accomplish the single most difficult feat in the sport. A horse must not only prosper during the Kentucky Derby prep season, but win three very difficult races in a five-week span, the last of which is the longest race they will ever run in in their lives. There's a reason only 11 horses have won the Triple Crown, no one has done it in 24 years and eight Triple Crown hopefuls have been stymied in the Belmont since Affirmed last won the Triple Crown in 1978. It can only be won by that rare, special horses who has the class, stamina and ability to do something that is starting to seem near impossible. No one knew if War Emblem fit the mold, but now we do and the answer is no.

The sport is no doubt frustrated. A massive gathering of 103,222 showed up at Belmont Park and the majority of them thought they would witness history, not an improbable victory by a horse few had heard of before yesterday whose claim to fame was that he won the Sir Barton Stakes. That the losing streak with a Triple Crown on the line is now eight is hard to fathom and the odds against it are astronomical.

But fear not, there will be another Triple Crown winner someday. It could happen next year or it may not happen for another 24 years. And when it does the horse who accomplishes the feat will truly be something special, that unique horse that truly deserves to be labeled great. It will happen and it will be accomplished by nothing less than a deserving champion. That's the way it is and the way we should want it to be.

War Emblem's Triple bid foiled at Belmont