Longshot War Emblem

Sunday, May 5th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) _ War Emblem did what he was expected to do at the start, and then surprised everyone at the finish: Bob Baffert's colt went wire to wire and won the Kentucky Derby on Saturday.

Baffert didn't have a Derby entry until three weeks ago, when Saudi Prince Ahmed Salman bought War Emblem after the colt won the Illinois Derby. He has now trained winners of three of the last six Derbys.

Before the race, Baffert said if War Emblem won, ``it will be the best and shortest training job ever.'' After the race, not many would argue, including the owner.

``It's an honor to win the Kentucky Derby. It's been my dream,'' said Salman, the first Arab owner to win the Derby. ``I love you guys in America. Bob Baffert is a genius.''

As expected, the colt set the pace in the 1 1/4-mile Derby, and never let go of the lead. He won his fifth race in seven career starts and covered the distance in a speedy 2:01 _ ninth-fastest in Derby history.

Ridden by Victor Espinoza, War Emblem won by four lengths over Proud Citizen, trained by D. Wayne Lukas, with Perfect Drift three-quarters of a length back in third. Medaglia d'Oro was fourth.

The win was a sweet one for Baffert, who was denied a Derby win last year with the favored Point Given, who went on to take the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.

Espinoza, a first-time Derby winner, said he knew he had the race won at the half-mile pole.

``He was going so easy. I knew nobody was going to catch me,'' he said.

Security was apparent at almost every turn Saturday, with National Guardsmen and police weaving in and out of crowds of racing revelers.

Heightened security has become a fact of life at major sports events since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and the Derby was no different. Six New York City firefighters were honored before the race.

On a sunny and breezy day at Churchill Downs, a crowd of 145,033 came to wager in one of the best betting Derbys in years. The crowd was the fifth largest in Derby history.

War Emblem returned $43, $22.80 and $13.60. Proud Citizen paid $24.60 and $13.40. Perfect Drift paid $6.40 to show.

Harlan's Holiday, the 6-1 favorite was seventh and never a factor.

With no designated super horse like Point Given or Fusaichi Pegasus to grab the bettor's fancy, Harlan's Holiday went off at the highest odds ever for a Derby favorite. The betting favorite has won only twice in the last 24 years.

Of the $1,175,000 purse, War Emblem earned $875,000, boosting his career total to $1,191,000, more than the reported $1 million the prince paid for the colt.

Baffert, who expects to show up at the Preakness Stakes in two weeks, now has won seven Triple Crown races.

``We sort of came in here through the back door, but we are leaving through the front door,'' Baffert said. ``We're just glad we were able to purchase this horse and it is a great win for all of us.''

Request for Parole was fifth, followed by Came Home, Harlan's Holiday, Johannesburg, Essence of Dubai, Saarland, Blue Burner, Castle Gandolfo, Easy Grades, Private Emblem, Lusty Latin, It'sallinthechase, Ocean Sound and Wild Horses.