- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 8, 2002

ELMONT, N.Y. Trainer Bob Baffert won't muddle War Emblem's chances of becoming the first Triple Crown champion since 1978 in today's 134th Belmont Stakes. The colt will simply take the early lead and hopefully not get caught.
No matter that the 1-mile Belmont often devours front-runners in its seemingly endless stretch. Forget that the last seven Kentucky Derby-Preakness Stakes winners failed to complete the sweep. Baffert won't change racing's biggest success story in recent years just because the "Test of Champions" is longer than the lines at Disney World.
"For War Emblem, there's not a lot of strategy involved, so there's not going to be a lot of pressure," Baffert said. "The main thing is to get him out of the gates clean. You can't take his game away from him. I don't want to see [jockey] Victor Espinoza pulling hard [to restrain the colt] because that weakens him."
Ninety thousand are expected to jam Belmont Park, where $2 still buys a grandstand seat for a championship event. Massive oak trees and a carousel provide a park setting unlike the infield mania at the Derby and Preakness as locals try to downplay major events. Still, Baffert knows the excitement will come when fans line the saddling area 10 deep hoping for a glimpse of racing's prospective superstar.
"There's nothing like coming out here and seeing the stands full," Baffert said. "That means our game is strong."
War Emblem's improbable two-month journey from a minor league career in the Midwest to a possible 12th Triple Crown championship is a larger long shot than his 20-1 Derby-winning odds. The coal-black colt owned by a Saudi prince, managed by a former Arizona quarterhorse trainer and ridden by a Mexican jockey has jelled into one of the more feared runners since his look-alike, Sunday Silence, failed to sweep the spring classics in 1989.
"This horse started out at 20-1 and now he's even money, so he's quite the horse," Baffert said. "I feel like I've done my homework. All we need is some racing luck. The toughest part will be fighting my way back up to the box from the paddock. War Emblem looks like he's ready to do some damage."
However, 10 rivals will challenge War Emblem. Jealousy runs so deep over Baffert's third chance at a Triple Crown that rival trainer Murray Johnson drew a picture of War Emblem on Perfect Drift's favorite chew toy.
Jockey Mike Smith, seeking redemption after finishing second in the Derby and third in the Preakness aboard Proud Citizen, is unconcerned how War Emblem's championship could boost the sport.
"You kidding me? I know they'd all be out there to spoil mine, so I'm certainly out there to spoil theirs," Smith said.
Bobby Frankel is considered one of the nation's top trainers never to have won a Triple Crown race. He'll enter Medaglia d'Oro after finishing fourth in the Derby and eighth in the Preakness in the expectation that War Emblem can't join the immortals. Nonetheless, Frankel respects the heavy favorite.
"I was skeptical at first, but War Emblem's really come on," Frankel said. "He might turn out to be a great horse."
Espinoza hasn't talked to other jockeys who have failed to complete the sweep. He doesn't need to be reminded that War Emblem will face obstacles.
"It's time somebody won the Triple Crown I hope it's me," Espinoza said. "I know what I have. I know he's the best horse and can do it. I don't know what will happen, [but] I'm not afraid to run at this point. I'm not afraid of someone coming after me."
Baffert, who threw out the first pitch at a New York Yankees game last night, claims that going for a record third Triple Crown attempt doesn't bother him although he finished second with Silver Charm in 1997 and Real Quiet in 1998.
"That road gets smoother every time we go," Baffert said. "My experience going through this really helps. Every year the memory banks load up."
Maybe this time it will be a lasting memory.


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