War Emblem seeks elusive Triple Crown
ESPN.com news services
NEW YORK -- War Emblem takes his one and only shot at history, trying to win thoroughbred racing's elusive Triple Crown today. His owner will not be present, however.
Belmont Park officials confirmed Saturday that Prince Ahmed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia will not be attending today's Belmont Stakes. The officials did not give a reason for the prince's absence.
Only 11 horses have ever swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes, and none since Affirmed in 1978.
"This is about history,'' said the colt's trainer Bob Baffert, who came within inches of winning the Triple Crown in 1997 with Silver Charm and again in '98 with Real Quiet.
"Even though I have the experience, I still get a little bit nervous worrying about everything,'' he said.
A crowd expected to surpass the 85,818 that showed up to root on Charismatic's failed Triple Crown bid in 1999 will be at Belmont Park on Saturday.
"There's nothing like walking up there and you see the stands completely filled. That means our sport is still strong,'' Baffert said.
Critics say racing could use a Triple Crown champion to boost the sport's sagging popularity and revenue in the United States. For Baffert, it's more personal.
"Bob Baffert needs a Triple Crown winner,'' he said.
He may have one in War Emblem, a black beauty purchased nearly two months ago for $900,000 by Ahmed.
The colt won the Derby in stunning wire-to-wire fashion, then came from behind to take the Preakness three weeks ago.
Baffert and the prince were criticized after the Derby for the late purchase of War Emblem. Until Ahmed opened his wallet, Baffert had no Derby horse since his other possibilities were injured or not up to par.
Baffert says he keeps hearing the prince bought the Derby.
"Let me tell you what the prince did, he rolled the dice,'' the white-haired trainer said. "He bought a horse that nobody wanted, that they weren't going to run in there and he was willing to roll the dice.''
Ten rivals will try to stop War Emblem's roll in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont, the longest of the Triple Crown races, which are only open to 3-year-olds.
Whether War Emblem can sustain his front-running speed at a distance rarely run by most horses is the big question.
"The worst thing you want to see is Victor Espinoza pulling on him hard all the way around,'' Baffert said. "That weakens him. It's like fighting a marlin.''
With a victory, War Emblem can join Secretariat, Citation, Seattle Slew, Affirmed and seven others in the exclusive Triple Crown club. A loss, and War Emblem becomes the 16th Derby-Preakness winner to fail in the Belmont -- and fourth in the past six years.
None of the opposing trainers are willing to concede the race to War Emblem, especially Baffert's chief rival, D. Wayne Lukas.
He trains Proud Citizen, who was second in the Derby and third in the Preakness.
"We're going to take the race to War Emblem,'' said Lukas, seeking a record-14th win in a Triple Crown race and his fifth Belmont. "I wanted to take it to War Emblem in the Derby but this horse wasn't quite up to it at that point. In the Preakness, we got jammed up on the first turn.
"The Belmont is the fairest of the three races. You get more spread out and you get a more realistic pace.''
War Emblem is the even-money favorite on the morning line. Proud Citizen is second choice at 5-1. Sunday Break, who missed the Derby and Preakness, is the third choice at 6-1 off his victory in the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont on May 25.
"Everybody says I'm playing spoiler,'' said Sunday Break's trainer Neil Drysdale. "My horse is not there to play spoiler, my horse is in there to try and win a classic race.''
Medaglia d'Oro returns for a third shot at War Emblem. Trained by Bobby Frankel, the colt finished fourth in the Derby and eighth in the Preakness.
"In the other two races, I was trying to win it,'' Frankel said. "Now, I just want to see him run good. We're going to let him run his own race and see where he finishes.''
The 24-year gap between Triple Crown champions is the second-longest, surpassed only by the 25 years between Citation's success in 1948 and Secretariat's in 1973.
"I live for this,'' Baffert said. "I'll be crying whether I win or lose.''
The Belmont field, from the rail out, is: Artax Too, Like A Hero, Wiseman's Ferry, Essence of Dubai, Sunday Break, Perfect Drift, Medaglia d'Oro, Proud Citizen, War Emblem, Magic Weisner and Sarava.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.