- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 19, 2002

BALTIMORE Trainer Bob Baffert figures immortality is overdue. After falling short of a Triple Crown by three-quarters of a length and a nose respectively in 1997 and '98, the white-haired trainer is ready to become a legend.
"Fate owes me a Triple Crown," Baffert said. "They'll be packing Belmont waiting for us."
War Emblem seeks to become thoroughbred racing's 12th Triple Crown winner in the 134th Belmont Stakes on June 8. Baffert's Real Quiet was a nose short in 1998 and Silver Charm fell by three-fourths length in 1997. Baffert won a double crown last year with Point Given after losing the Derby. He figures it's time to don the carnation blanket after smelling the roses and black-eyed susans.
But the Triple Crown's final jewel doesn't come easily. Six colts have failed at the Belmont after winning the first two since Affirmed last won the Triple Crown in 1978. The 24-year gap is one year short of the longest stretch between champions when Secretariat's 1973 championship ended the drought shortly before 1948 champion Citation died. Seattle Slew's recent death leaves racing without a living Triple Crown champion for the first time since Sir Barton's 1919 initial sweep, but racegoers seem energized over War Emblem's chances.
"We need a Triple Crown," Baffert said. "The crowd was so for this horse. They wanted him to win so badly. I almost didn't do the walk [over to the saddling area] because of the mud. It really made me feel great. It was one of the best walks I've ever made."
Baffert has now won four straight Triple Crown races, two short of trainer D. Wayne Lukas' record. Saudi prince Ahmed bin Salman, who also owned Point Given during the streak, was unusually jubilant yesterday, saying he is "a little more popular than George Bush."
After all, buying War Emblem for nearly $1 million on April 3 has proved a steal. The jet black colt has already earned more than $3.2 million and will receive a $5 million bonus by winning the Triple Crown.
"I think this is one of the best investments I ever made in my life besides buying oil in Arabia," he said.
Confidence is becoming the trademark of the War Emblem camp, but the colt may be its most arrogant of the bunch. The colt's swagger was so strong after the race that he nearly bit the outrider's pony leading him to the winner's circle. The colt has learned to pose for increasing cameramen during morning baths and rest amid large crowds outside his stall.
"A lot of work has been put into this horse to get him to relax and getting quiet," Baffert said. "He's getting smarter. He's learned to relax and he's saying 'This could be fun.' He's learning to take his time."
Indeed, War Emblem finally won for the first time when he didn't lead from the start.
Jockey Victor Espinoza said the colt doesn't like others ahead of him, but patiently dispatched long shot Menacing Dennis before the final turn. The colt then showed courage by repelling challengers early and late over the Preakness' 1 3/16 miles to prove the wire-to-wire Derby victory wasn't an unchallenged fluke.
"He just got really aggressive," Espinoza said. "He wanted nobody to take his position. He wanted to be in control of everybody else."
War Emblem has blossomed in the longer spring classics. The front-running Illinois Derby victory was impressive, but just the start of the dominance.
The longer the race, the more War Emblem enjoys it.
"Silver Charm liked to fight it out. Real Quiet made a long run. The one thing that makes these horses great is when you stretch them out they do it effortlessly," Baffert said. "You could put them back in the starting gate again."
The starting gate may not be filled at Belmont Park. War Emblem faced 17 in the Derby and 12 in the Preakness, but Preakness runner-up Magic Weisner won't enter the Belmont and a few more rivals will probably forgo a third encounter.
"He showed a dimension that nobody thought he had take the heat and keep on going," Baffert said. "I like my chances. Third time's the charm."


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