- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 18, 2002

BALTIMORE Today's 127th Preakness Stakes may be decided by the first turn.

With a pack of long shots determined not to get left behind by Kentucky Derby winner War Emblem, an expected furious opening charge may cause early front-runners to collapse in the Pimlico Race Course stretch to set up a late comer, Medaglia d'Oro or Harlan's Holiday. A slow pace might let War Emblem repeat his wire-to-wire Derby victory.

Then again, a bad break from the starting gate or wet track could quickly alter strategies. The 13-horse field has more combinations than a boxed triple wager, but they all center around War Emblem.

"You hear a lot of talk, but it depends on how the other horses train, how they break," War Emblem trainer Bob Baffert said. "You think they're doing great and all of a sudden they don't run at all."

It has been a week filled with uncharacteristic jabs by leading trainers. Not since trainer Woody Stephens regularly teased trainer D. Wayne Lukas in the late 1980s has the Triple Crown seen horsemen willing to challenge each other openly.

Baffert's quick wit has become more contagious than Triple Crown fever. The white-haired trainer seeks his fourth Preakness victory and third with a Derby winner after Silver Charm's and Real Quiet's 1997-98 double successes. Baffert has grabbed two-thirds of the Triple Crown three times in five years, including Point Given's Preakness-Belmont Stakes double last year. He felt fans are eager to end the 24-year Triple Crown drought.

"There are a lot of horse racing fans and sports fans that would like to see a Triple Crown winner," Baffert said. "I want to give the fans something to keep rooting for. I don't want the dream to end."

But War Emblem won't steal another spring classic. Booklet, Menacing Dennis and Table Limit should spring over the opening quarter mile of the 1 3/16th-mile race. Baffert could have War Emblem run slightly behind the leaders despite his usual front-running style rather than work too hard for the early lead. However, Baffert admits whether War Emblem will "rate" behind the leaders is uncertain.

"I don't know. I don't think anybody will know," he said. "[Conversely], can anybody keep up with him?"

Most opposing trainers don't believe Baffert's take-back approach. They truly expect the black colt to compete for the lead no matter how furious the pace.

"I think Booklet is going to hook up from the start with War Emblem," trainer John Ward said. "I believe that is their fate because they have the same style."

Said Lukas, who trains Table Limit and Proud Citizen: "There's a lot of horses with similar characteristics. It could get a little tight. You have to be more aggressive because it's the nature of the field. Everybody is going to be much more aware of everyone's ability."

Baffert won't avoid a challenge. War Emblem jockey Victor Espinoza might take the contested lead if forced.

"That's what brings out the greatness in a horse," Baffert said. "If he got in a dogfight, I think he would pass the test. He needs racing luck. He has speed and stamina, but racing luck we have no control over."

Expected overnight rain probably won't alter the track. Pimlico only needs a few hours to gain at least a "good" rating.

"I think all the ones you all think will do well will still do well if the track is off," Lukas said. "You can't worry about these things."

Medaglia d'Oro is the expected post-time favorite over War Emblem with Proud Citizen and Harlan's Holiday drawing fan support in the field of 13. Medaglia d'Oro has become the choice after finishing fourth in the Derby when rallying late. Proud Citizen ran second all the way around in the Derby. Harlan's Holiday was a disappointing seventh as the 6-1 favorite. Trainer Ken McPeek said Harlan's Holiday wouldn't need a post-race alibi this time.

"The Derby was a throw-out race for him," McPeek said. "Harlan's got speed, but we just didn't use it in the Derby. He could have been eyeball to eyeball with War Emblem. We got caught napping just like the rest of the field. That shouldn't happen here."

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