2002: War Emblem

Sunday, May 05, 2002
By Maryjean Wall, Herald-Leader Racing Writer
It’s their race again.
Bob Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas, who dominated the Kentucky Derby in the 1990s, restaked their claim yesterday with a one-two finish — War Emblem and Proud Citizen — before the announced fifth-largest Derby crowd. The outcome on a warm, sunny day at Churchill Downs was a startling upset in a wide-open field that no one could divine from the outset.
The Thoroughbred Corp.’s War Emblem led all the way to win in 2:01.13, the first wire-to-wire winner since Lukas won with Winning Colors in 1988.
War Emblem won $875,000 for winning the Derby, and a $1 million bonus because he also had won the Illinois Derby. The Kentucky Derby paid $1.175 million to the top four finishers.
Harlan’s Holiday, the slight favorite, ran seventh.
The field had been reduced from 20 to 18. First Buddha, one of the top choices, was declared out Friday with an injury. Then, yesterday morning, Baffert scratched Danthebluegrassman with a minor ailment.
A bigger upset than the payoffs was the irony of Baffert and Lukas horses ending up dominating the race when only weeks ago the two trainers appeared shut out.
Neither had a prospect to run until they both pulled rabbits out of their charmed Derby hats.
Making magic happen
Prince Ahmed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia came to Baffert’s rescue. His racing operation, The Thoroughbred Corp., spent what some speculated was $1 million to buy War Emblem, a son of Our Emblem, after that horse won the Illinois Derby on April 6.
Presto, Baffert was in.
Lukas appeared horseless for the Derby for only the second time since 1981. Then, Proud Citizen, who hadn’t won a race since last June, won Keeneland’s Coolmore Lexington Stakes two weeks ago.
And Lukas was back in.
The only one missing from the ’90s training triumvirate of Derby Dandies was Nick Zito, who tried but couldn’t grab hold of the same magic rabbit that Baffert and Lukas caught with the clock ticking down to Derby.
All three had appeared desperate to get back in the Derby spotlight, and the depth of their rivalry was evident after the Lexington Stakes.
“At least I didn’t have to buy my way in,” Lukas quipped when he won that race with Proud Citizen. He was alluding, of course, to Baffert.
Baffert came up with another Derby entrant, Danthebluegrassman, even closer to the race. That horse was a surprise entrant Wednesday, after the trainer had said all along that he was no more than a miler.
‘Wait, wait, wait’
Beyond the trainer rivalry, however, was the consolation prize that War Emblem represented for Prince Ahmed. Last year, his heavily favored Point Given ran fifth, losing for the only time in the Triple Crown series.
Baffert blamed himself for that loss, for telling jockey Gary Stevens to position him off the pace, which apparently did not suit him.
Yesterday, his instructions worked perfectly. With War Emblem a confirmed front-runner, Baffert told jockey Victor Espinoza to get out front and then, “Wait, wait, wait.”
Baffert added: “At the eighth pole, you can do whatever you want.”
Espinoza, winning his first Derby, said he knew he had the most speed but that the Derby is the type of race where “nobody gets away from nobody.”
Flanked most of the way by Proud Citizen, with Perfect Drift close behind, Espinoza eased out War Emblem just a little farther down the backstretch.
But most important, the jockey held himself in check.
“Down by the three-eighths (pole), I have too much horse,” Espinoza said. Still, he reasoned, “there’s no reason to let it go yet.”
So he waited. “I’m thinking it’s a long stretch,” Espinoza said. “I have to be patient.”
So he waited, waited, waited as Baffert had instructed him. Then with the long homestretch finally in front of him, he set flight.
Proud Citizen was still 1 1/2 lengths behind in the upper stretch, after regaining the second position that he’d temporarily surrendered on the final turn to Perfect Drift. But Proud Citizen would get no closer to War Emblem.
Espinoza had signaled War Emblem, sending some telepathic sense of freedom through the reins. The horse bounded ahead. Watching amid the crowd of 145,033, Baffert grew more elated with each lengthening stride.
“At the eighth pole you get this incredible feeling when you know you’re going to win,” Baffert said.
“The last 100 yards, you wish it would last forever.”
Perfect Drift appeared in the stretch like he might have been cut off by the winner, but jockey Eddie Delahoussaye said it was not enough for him to claim foul.
Edgar Prado, who rode Harlan’s Holiday, said the favorite just didn’t respond.
As an upset, War Emblem paid a proper long shot’s win mutuel of $43; the winner and runner-up combination returned a $1,300.80 exacta.
The trifecta including third-place Perfect Drift paid $18,373.20 and the superfecta, with fourth-place Medaglia d’Oro, paid $183,529.

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