Baffert Gets Shot at Triple Crown

Monday, May 20th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BALTIMORE (AP) _ Bob Baffert never heard of War Emblem six weeks ago. In 19 days, he and his newfound friend will attempt to do what hasn't been done in 24 years _ win the Triple Crown.

``There's not a 3-year-old out there that can beat him,'' said Baffert, who twice before came agonizingly close to training Triple Crown winners.

This time, he thinks War Emblem has what it takes to get the job done.

``This guy keeps throwing it into gears and goes like the tank's never empty,'' he said of his latest Kentucky Derby-Preakness winner. ``There's nobody faster than him. He just goes.''

Baffert first set eyes on the jet-black colt April 6. The white-haired trainer was in the paddock at Santa Anita Park, watching the Illinois Derby on TV.

``I never heard of that horse until he won,'' Baffert said Sunday morning, about 14 hours after War Emblem won the Preakness Stakes by three-quarters of a length over long shot Magic Weisner. ``I thought, `Wow!' We were watching Repent and that horse just kicked and I said, `Man!' And Repent ran a hell of a race.''

Five days after War Emblem won the race by 6 1/4 lengths, the colt landed in Baffert's barn thanks to good friend Saudi Prince Ahmed bin Salman, who shelled out $900,000 for a 90 percent interest.

War Emblem proceeded to duplicate the win with another gate-to-wire victory, this time in the Kentucky Derby. Then, he rated off the lead and won the Preakness, proving he's not a one-dimensional horse.

In the Belmont Stakes in New York on June 8, he'll try to become the 12th Triple Crown winner and first since Affirmed in 1978.

Baffert is confident, and came close to a guarantee of victory.

``I don't want to jinx myself,'' he said, ``but I'd start getting my room reservations and everything.''

Can War Emblem cover the 1 1/2 miles, longer than any 3-year-old has ever run?

``Piece of cake,'' Baffert said.

So this is the winner, right?

``You all have been waiting for that super horse,'' he said. ``You've got him.''

Baffert is well-versed in Triple tries _ with Silver Charm in 1997 and Real Quiet in 1998. Both won the Derby and Preakness but lost the Belmont _ Silver Charm by three-quarters of a length to Touch Gold and Real Quiet by a nose to Victory Gallop.

War Emblem is different. Unlike Silver Charm and Real Quiet, he loves to run in front, and he wasn't pooped after the Preakness like Silver Charm and Real Quiet.

``As long as I keep him healthy and at this level, then I'll probably feel stronger about this Triple Crown then I've ever felt about the other two,'' Baffert said. ``The only reason it will be tough is if between now and then he were to go backwards on me.''

Now that trainer Nick Zito's duo is out of the Belmont _ Straight Gin sustained a career-ending injury in the race and Crimson Hero was seventh, he'll be rooting for a Triple Crown. He said War Emblem has everything in his favor, but anything can happen.

``He shouldn't get beat, but that's what happens,'' Zito said. ``Why did Real Quiet look like he was home free? Why did Silver Charm get beat? It happens.''

This will be the fourth Triple try in six years. In addition to Baffert's third attempt, trainer D. Wayne Lukas' Charismatic nearly pulled it off in 1999.

The Belmont challengers have started lining up. From the Preakness, Lukas' Proud Citizen will try again after finishing second in the Derby and third in the Preakness.

``I know you all want to see a Triple Crown,'' Lukas said, ``but I'm going to try and spoil your dream.''

Magic Weisner, trained and owned by Nancy Alberts, is under consideration after his impressive effort.

``I will wait and see how Magic is in three or four days,'' she said.

Essence of Dubai, Perfect Drift and Sunday Break are the top names among non-Preakness runners. Others include Azillion, One Tuff Fox, Puzzlement, Sarava, Tales Of The Crypt, Tracemark and Wiseman's Ferry, the New York Racing Association said.

Perfect Drift was third in the Derby and Essence of Dubai, owned by Godolphin Racing, was ninth.

Puzzlement and Sunday Break are set to run in the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park on Saturday.

If War Emblem pulls off the triple, it would seem only fitting the feat comes on the 25th anniversary of Seattle Slew's Triple Crown _ and a month after Slew died. His death on May 7 left racing without a living Triple Crown winner for the first time since 1919, when Sir Barton became the first to win the Derby, Preakness and Belmont.

``Now that there's no Triple Crown winners alive _ maybe that's what it took,'' Baffert said, ``I don't know if that had anything to do with it. I'm just glad I get another shot at it.''

Mickey Taylor, who owned Slew, will be at Belmont cheering on War Emblem.

``For racing, it would be nice to have another Triple Crown winner, especially with Slew passing away,'' Taylor said. ``It would be sweet for the thoroughbred industry.''