- The Washington Times - Friday, May 17, 2002

BALTIMORE The Alibi Breakfast turned into liar's poker yesterday. Trainers promoting their chances in tomorrow's 127th Preakness Stakes during the annual pre-race brunch delivered a strategy session instead.

Kentucky Derby winner War Emblem is expected to take the early lead once again. However, trainer Bob Baffert talked of "rating" the colt off the front despite winning three straight races wire-to-wire. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas spoke of Table Limit using the race as a prep for the Belmont Stakes and not entering the rabbit to soften War Emblem for stablemate Proud Citizen.

John Ward said speedball Booklet isn't necessarily the early leader.

Millions of dollars will be wagered on the Preakness, but don't trust these trainers with your wallet. The race's pace seems obvious War Emblem will take the early lead and hope rivals don't prove too taxing to allow a late-runner to catch him.

"Everybody is going after War Emblem," Ward said.

It's that simple. Then again, maybe not. Rivals knew War Emblem would lead the Derby and none challenged him. War Emblem set an honest, but not taxing early pace and easily repelled late rivals. Opponents didn't want to wear themselves out and set up the win for others, so War Emblem waltzed away. Many jockeys wondered why someone else didn't do the dirty work, but they refused, too.

After all, the 2000 Derby showed early challengers usually set up late runners in the spring classics. Monarchos rallied from 10th midway and sixth on the final turn to win by 43/4 lengths when the early speed collapsed.

"Everybody went out there [quickly], the track was super fast like concrete and everybody chased and the whole field collapsed and the horse from way back won," Baffert said. "People like to see a lot of action collapsing, bumping and charging like they're going to a bullfight. What would a bullfight be without the bull getting a piece of the bullfighter? Some people call it exciting, we call it disaster."

Instead, Baffert downplayed his 20-1 long shot before the Derby so others wouldn't feel they needed to rush alongside early. Jockey Victor Espinoza didn't use his whip until the final eighth mile so trailing jockeys wouldn't feel restless.

"By Victor not moving on the horse everybody else didn't panic," Baffert said. "They knew if they chased him they'd get nothing. This horse has tight cruising speed and stamina."

But the field won't be fooled twice. Booklet is expected to lead the cavalry charge to the first turn with War Emblem, Table Limit and Menacing Dennis close behind. If they set a blistering pace, the quartet will tire in the stretch and set up closers like Derby runner-up Proud Citizen and Derby favorite Harlan's Holiday.

"We're counting on a few of our friends to help us out this time," Lukas said.

Certainly, Ward is the wild card. Booklet didn't enter the Derby after losing twice when major stakes grew longer. The 10-1 long shot would be a stunning winner, but Ward figures War Emblem stole the Derby so maybe he can pilfer the Preakness.

"I'm in a very enviable position," Ward said. "I have Bob Baffert looking over this shoulder. I've got Wayne Lukas liking to have me around, but the best part of the day is [Harlans Holiday trainer] Kenny McPeek offered to pay my way home with my horse if I would set the pace. I must be everybody's best friend."

But McPeek isn't too worried over the early pace. He figures Harlan's Holiday will easily improve over the surprising seventh-place Derby finish.

"What if I told you I won't need an alibi this weekend?" McPeek said.

Of course, Baffert could fool rivals by letting them rush ahead and becoming the hunter instead. However, even he admits not knowing whether the colt can win with dirt kicked in his face.

"My first alibi will be 'The [bums] got me,'" Baffert offered. "My second alibi will be 'I told Victor this horse couldn't rate.' And my third alibi will be 'I knew there was a reason we got him so cheap.'"

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