War Emblem falls short in Triple Crown bid

Sunday, June 9th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ Bob Baffert was right _ a bad start was the only thing that could keep War Emblem from winning the Triple Crown.

As soon as the gates sprang open and the black colt nearly fell to his knees, the trainer knew he and his horse were doomed.

Just like that, the front-runner was behind. Just like that, Baffert realized he would come up short again in this third try to win a Triple Crown.

At the wire, 70-1 shot Sarava finished a half-length ahead of Medaglia d'Oro on Saturday to become the highest priced winner in the 134-year history of the Belmont Stakes, returning $142.50 for a $2 bet.

When War Emblem crossed the finish line under jockey Victor Espinoza, he was eighth in the 11-horse field, nearly 20 lengths behind.

``I said the only thing that could beat us was a bad break,'' Baffert said. ``Victor did the best he could. It was gut-wrenching to have to watch the whole race.

``If I had a walkie-talkie I would have told him to pull up right there. I didn't want him running a mile and a half like that.''

Sent off as the 6-5 favorite by a record-crowd of 103,222 that jammed the grandstand at Belmont Park, War Emblem just ran out of gas in the final turn of the demanding 1 1/2-mile test _ the longest of the Triple Crown series.

It looked nothing like his wire-to-wire victory in the Kentucky Derby or his three-quarter length win in the Preakness.

For Baffert, the heartbreak was familiar.

In 1997, Silver Charm lost the Triple Crown by three-quarters of a length to Touch Gold, and in 1998, Real Quiet was beaten by a nose by Victory Gallop. No trainer had ever lost the Belmont three times with horses that had won the Derby and Preakness.

``I feel empty,'' Baffert said. ``I feel like I let the fans down. The hardest loss I had compared to this was when I got beat by a nose in the Derby because I never thought I'd get there again.''

For a minute or so, it looked as though War Emblem might recover.

He moved into contention by the first turn, behind Wiseman's Ferry and Medaglia d'Oro. After being boxed in, the ornery black colt found room on the inside and took the lead for about a sixteenth of a mile, just before the final turn.

That prompted a roar from the crowd, which hoped finally to see a Triple Crown champion after a 24-year wait. But it wasn't to be.

As the field turned into the long home stretch, Sarava and Medaglia d'Oro were in command and Espinoza was already letting up. The two battled down the stretch before Sarava gave trainer Ken McPeek an unexpected victory.

``I am pinching myself, of course,'' McPeek said. ``Who wouldn't at 70-1?''

Sarava returned $142.50, $50, $22.40. The previous mark was $132.10 by Sherluck, who spoiled Carry Back's bid for a Triple Crown in 1961. Medaglia d'Oro paid $16 and $10.60. Sunday Break was third, 9 1/2 lengths farther back, and paid $7.10.

War Emblem's defeat leaves racing still aching for its first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, a span that now matches the longest gap between Triple Crown champions. After Citation's success in 1948, Secretariat didn't sweep until 1973.

War Emblem was the eighth horse to try for the Triple since Affirmed won it, and the fourth in the past six years. The black beauty of a racehorse became the 16th Derby-Preakness winner to fail in the Belmont.

Now, with the death last month of Seattle Slew, who won the Triple in 1977, the sport remains without a living Triple Crown champion.

Medaglia d'Oro, ridden by Kent Desormeaux, had his best race in the Triple Crown series after finishing fourth in the Derby and eighth in the Preakness.

Magic Weisner was fourth, followed by Proud Citizen, Essence of Dubai, Like A Hero, War Emblem, Wiseman's Ferry, Perfect Drift and Artax Too.

Proud Citizen, trained by D. Wayne Lukas, was pulled up by rider Mike Smith after the finish line and was taken away in a van. Proud Citizen, second in the Derby and third in the Preakness, sustained a cracked left shin, Lukas said.

``He'll be out about 90 to 120 days,'' said Lukas, who has won four Belmont Stakes. ``I'm happy it isn't more serious.''

McPeek, saddling his second starter, was elated.

His Harlan's Holiday lost the Derby as the favorite and he also lost another contender when Repent was injured in the Illinois Derby. Earlier this week, he was fired as Harlan Holiday's trainer. So he went for his next best option, Sarava, who began his career in Europe.

``I believe that when something bad happens to you, something equally good is about to happen to you,'' McPeek said. ``I'll take it any way I can get it. And I got it.''

Ridden by Edgar Prado, Sarava earned a spot in the Belmont off his victory in the Sir Barton Stakes on Preakness day three weeks ago. Owned by New Phoenix Stable and Susan Roy, Sarava won in a slow time of 2:29.71, more than five seconds off Secretariat's world record.

Sarava was the second longest shot in the field and earned $600,000 for the win, his third in nine career starts.

``The horse was very sharp,'' Prado said. ``He was very calm. We were in good position all the way around. When I called on him, he responded well. It was like a dream come true.''

For Baffert, a Triple try fell into his lap when Saudi Prince Ahmed bin Salman paid $900,000 for War Emblem on April 11 and sent the son of Our Emblem to the trainer's barn at Churchill Downs.

Ahmed, who attended the Derby and Preakness, was not at the Belmont. His racing manager, Richard Mulhall, said the prince had ``family obligations.''

War Emblem, dismissed at odds of 20-1 on Derby day, went wire-to-wire for a four-length victory. Two weeks later, he won the Preakness by three-quarters of a length and became the 27th horse to move to the brink of the Triple Crown.

Baffert, ever the kidder, still tried to find humor in defeat.

``Next time I win the Derby,'' he said, ``I'm heading home.''