- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 8, 2002

ELMONT, N.Y. Jockey Victor Espinoza won't be War Emblem's only burden in today's 134th Belmont Stakes. The colt also will shoulder racing's hopes for its first Triple Crown winner in 24 years.
Seven straight Kentucky Derby-Preakness Stakes winners have failed to complete the sweep since Affirmed did it in 1978. The horses have lost by a nose and because of inept riding, injuries and simply bad luck. The "Test of Champions" is an unwavering final exam to immortality.
"If War Emblem wins the Triple Crown, racing will experience a monumental catharsis,'' Laura Hillenbrand, author of the best-seller "Seabiscuit," said. "An entire generation has grown up without having experienced the rapture of witnessing this extraordinary feat, and the frustration has grown every year.
"It will also be a tremendous boon to racing, which has long needed the kind of superstar that captures the public's imagination," she said. "Perhaps War Emblem is the superstar we have waited for.''
Race fans love a long-shot story, and War Emblem is on the verge of greatness just two months after being sold for nearly $1 million by an owner who didn't think the 3-year-old merited entering the Derby.
Instead, the coal-black colt won the Derby wire to wire and demonstrated his versatility by waiting until midway through the Preakness before taking the lead. War Emblem may not be the next Secretariat, but a fifth straight victory would make him just the 12th to claim the Triple Crown since Sir Barton in 1919.
A record 90,000 are expected at Belmont Park, which perhaps has seen more of racing's greatest horses than any other track. From War Admiral to Affirmed to Assault, racing's royalty has proved itself over the spacious 1-mile track and cavernous facility that mirror the grandeur of Gotham.
Seattle Slew's death last month left racing without a living Triple Crown winner for the first time, so War Emblem's bid is important to an industry struggling to remain more than an occasional blip on the sporting scene.
"All of racing will benefit from a Triple Crown winner," said former Pimlico Race Course general manager Chick Lang, who has seen eight champions. "People want to see it. They're talking about it every day."
Triple Crown pressure has proved daunting in the past. The trainer and jockey have three weeks to contemplate the event's magnitude after winning the Preakness. Some stay away until shortly before the race. War Emblem and trainer Bob Baffert didn't arrive until Wednesday, and Espinoza reported yesterday.
"It affects the rider more than anything, opens their sinuses a little more than normal,'' said trainer D. Wayne Lukas, whose Charismatic with jockey Chris Antley failed in 1999 when he suffered a career-ending injury. "I wish I had kept Antley a little more focused he was ringing the bells at Wall Street and throwing out balls [at a New York Yankees game] and going on talk shows. I think if I ever get there again, I'm going to get adjoining rooms and go to bed early.''
Perhaps the "Slew Crew'' mania of 1977 was racing's zenith. Seattle Slew was the only undefeated Triple Crown champion and had a cult following at Belmont. Although the focus wasn't as intense as that on Secretariat in 1973, when he ended a 25-year drought, Seattle Slew jockey Steve Cauthen conceded the atmosphere was oppressive.
"It was like a circus, but you put up with it because it's the Triple Crown," he said.
Baffert is the first trainer to get three chances at a Triple Crown (only two others have earned even a second try). Baffert says fate owes him a Triple Crown because his Silver Charm was run down in the final yards in 1997, and Real Quiet lost by a nose on a bob of the head in 1998.
Neither loss scarred Baffert, a former quarter-horse trainer from Nogales, Ariz., whose Austin Powers sense of humor and shock of white hair have made him racing's most visible figure. The trainer denies that Triple Crown fever is overwhelming, saying that smelling the Derby's roses three times was more intoxicating.
"A lot of people think there's a lot of pressure, but the pressure is just going to the Derby that's the biggest deal of them all," Baffert said. "When they were coming down the [Preakness] stretch and Real Quiet was in front, I said to myself, 'I'm going to win the Triple Crown.' It was a good feeling, but it wasn't like winning the Kentucky Derby. The Triple Crown is history, but winning the Kentucky Derby is the one you want."
Jockey Kent Desormeaux agrees. The former Maryland rider left for California in 1991 to seek prospective Derby mounts and found thundering down the Churchill Downs stretch to be the ultimate thrill.
"There's nothing more [important] in your life than winning the Kentucky Derby," Desormeaux said. "After you're able to get the Derby and Preakness, it seems like you're in fantasyland. The Kentucky Derby is the cake, the Preakness is the icing and the Belmont is the candles."
It will take just 2 minutes to determine War Emblem's fate. Only "wise guy" bettors looking for a windfall against the heavy favorite will cheer should the colt fail.
"I don't think he'll get beat, and I don't want to root against him because that would be unfair," said Nick Zito, a two-time Derby-winning trainer.

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