- The Washington Times - Monday, May 20, 2002

BALTIMORE Trainer Bob Baffert made it simple: War Emblem will win the Triple Crown barring any setbacks before the 134th Belmont Stakes on June 8.
"We've all been waiting for a super horse. We've got him. There's not a 3-year-old that can beat him,'' Baffert said yesterday. "As long as I keep him healthy and at that level, I'll feel stronger about this Triple Crown than the other two. He's running faster than any horse I've brought to these races.''
But the last seven horses to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown were denied in the third, so the Belmont Park starting gate could see 11 against the expected heavy favorite. Proud Citizen, second in the Derby and third in the Preakness, will enter. Third-place Derby finisher Perfect Drift, Essence of Dubai and Sunday Break could be joined by long shots Azillion, One Tuff Fox, Puzzlement, Tails of the Crypt, Tracemark, Windward Passage and Wisemen's Ferry.
Trainer Nancy Alberts was uncertain whether Preakness runner-up Magic Weisner would enter the Belmont. At first she dismissed it but then said a decision would not come for at least a few days and possibly not until the June 5 post position draw.
"I've always thought he could go any distance we ask,'' Alberts said.
Baffert isn't concerned about the large contingent attempting to stop the double crown winner. After beating 17 rivals in the Derby and 12 in the Preakness, War Emblem, with his front-running style, makes trailing traffic irrelevant.
The 1-mile Belmont, the longest major U.S. stakes race, is too long for a cheap speed horse to steal it. Instead, the race often is a slow shuffle for the first half, which is when War Emblem will try to separate from the field.
"The horse has to be in position at the half-mile pole. Sometimes the momentum just takes you home,'' Baffert said. "He's just faster than everyone. This horse has gears. The tank never feels empty. It was a good schooling for him [when he ran second early in the Preakness]. It's OK to let a horse go out there [ahead].''
Baffert dismissed the late run by Magic Weisner, who finished three-fourths of a length back after rallying from seventh on the final turn.
"Nobody was going to get by War Emblem,'' he said. "He wouldn't let them get past after the race.''
Trainer Nick Zito will be a Belmont bystander following a career-ending leg injury to Straight Gin and a poor seventh-place finish by Crimson Hero. However, Zito said pre-Preakness bluster by rival trainers, who tried to unnerve War Emblem early with a suicidal pace, was foolish. Menacing Dennis was the only early speedster before he faded to 10th. Table Limit and Booklet never factored and finished 11th and 12th, respectively.
"All the strategy means nothing,'' Zito said. "It's just stupid to worry about one horse. You should concentrate on your own horse because all it does is take away from your own game. War Emblem is definitely the best 3-year-old. None of these horses are as good as him.''
Baffert still seems awed by a colt who has been in his stable for just six weeks. War Emblem continues to be "Baffertized,'' learning how to rate behind early leaders to avoid being taxed needlessly. The trainer is teaching the colt to remain calm amid the hoopla of possibly becoming thoroughbred racing's first Triple Crown champion since Affirmed in 1978.
War Emblem is still fiery. He likes to bite outrider ponies after races and grooms in the morning, earning the nickname "Hannibal Lecter.'' The part on the track may be the easier part.
"I woke up this morning feeling like Phil Jackson when he took over the [Los Angeles] Lakers,'' Baffert said.
War Emblem was the last to leave the stakes barn, returning to Louisville until June 5. The Belmont will be his last race until Oct.26, when he will run in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Arlington Park.


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