- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 5, 2002

LOUISVILLE, Ky. War Emblem stole the 128th Kentucky Derby.
Suckering rivals with a slow early pace that let him easily repel stretch challengers, War Emblem pulled away at the eighth pole yesterday to win the roses by four lengths over Proud Citizen. War Emblem was the first wire-to-wire victor since Winning Colors in 1988, covering 1 miles in 2:01.
"That last 100 yards you wish would last forever," War Emblem trainer Bob Baffert said. "I almost started crying when they hit the wire."
War Emblem exited the Derby as racing's latest hero in an event considered so wide open Harlan's Holiday was made the highest favorite ever at 6-1 by the 145,033 at Churchill Downs. War Emblem ($43) was overlooked despite two straight wins in continuing the Derby's recent era of long-shot winners with the 10th-largest payoff ever. The 20-to-1 odds meant only 5 percent of wagering was on War Emblem.
Baffert won his third Derby after buying War Emblem for $1 million on April 3. Calling it his best and shortest training job ever, the white-haired trainer experienced redemption after withdrawing Danthebluegrassman hours earlier with a leg injury following a controversial entry on Wednesday. Baffert told a group visiting his barn to remember the word "vindication" after the race.
"We came in through the back door, but we are leaving through the front door," Baffert said.
Baffert said War Emblem will enter the 127th Preakness Stakes on May 18 at Pimlico Race Course. Baffert won the Preakness and Belmont Stakes last year with Point Given.
Front-runners rarely win the Derby because the blistering early pace often leaves them exhausted out of the final turn. So many have fallen back that the top of the stretch is dubbed "Heartbreak Lane."
Jockey Victor Espinoza followed Baffert's instruction of setting a leisurely early pace. With expected front-runner Buddha withdrawn Friday because of a hoof injury, the field lacked a true early speedster to run with War Emblem. That allowed War Emblem to cover the opening half mile in a methodical 47 seconds and the first three-fourths mile in an almost sluggish 1:11 3/5.
"I told Victor 'Don't panic. If you're by yourself turning for home, don't panic. Just wait, wait, wait and at the eighth pole do what you want," Baffert said. "Victor just sat quiet. He showed so much poise."
Proud Citizen pulled within one length of War Emblem entering the stretch while Perfect Drift began closing along the rail. Espinoza waited until the eighth pole, then went to the whip for a short burst. The trio ran together the rest of the way as Proud Citizen finished three-fourths length ahead of Perfect Drift.
"Down the three-eighths pole, I had too much horse to go [harder]. There was no reason to go yet because there's no pressure behind me," Espinoza said. "You're so excited you can't wait to let the horse go, but it's a long stretch so I had to be patient."
Proud Citizen and Perfect Drift ran second and third, respectively, the entire race. Jockey Mike Smith didn't push Proud Citizen until the top of the stretch to avoid an early speed duel, but the colt simply couldn't outkick War Emblem.
"The only difference between the two of us was my horse was getting over [the track] well, but not real well and War Emblem was relishing it," Smith said. "I tried to stay within striking distance of him. He just kicked away from us."
Harlan's Holiday became the 21st losing favorite since 1980 by finishing seventh. The Florida Derby and Blue Grass Stakes winner was 11th in the first turn when he should have been no farther back than fifth. That left him unable to move through the crowd on the final turn and stretch.
"He didn't pull like he usually does," jockey Edgar Prado said. "When we hit the backstretch, he didn't give me any confidence. I had to put him in drive a lot sooner than I wanted. He really didn't respond."
Essense of Dubai was also a lackluster ninth at 10-1. The Dubai colt sweated badly when led over from the barn, threw jockey David Flores in the paddock and shied from the crowd during the post parade.
"He was a little goofy," Flores said. "He got a little excited. My horse just didn't run at all."

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