After reviewing the Derby results for past few years and Baffert’s dominance of the Kentucky Derby there would be absolutely no way no how forget about it that one of his entries would pay 43.00 to win the Derby. But, that was 2002.
War Emblem was a horse that was languishing and underachieving much of his career. I had seen him first hand down at the Fair Grounds and he had not distinguished himself at all after winning an entry level allowance race the first week of the meet. Subsequent losses in the Lecomte and the Risen Star had almost certainly dashed any hope this horse would get in the starting gate when the first Saturday in May rolled around.
But, this is horse racing and weird things happen especially with three year olds in the spring.
A blowout allowance win at Sportsman Park – a win by over 10 lengths – sent War Emblem to the Illinois Derby. Back in those days the Illinois Derby was run in early April and was used by some as a prep for the Derby. Today the Illinois Derby has been moved because Churchill will not allot the race any coveted Derby points but back in 2002 the race was a possible prep.
And what a prep it was for War Emblem. He blew the race open winning off by more than six lengths beating a well thought of horse in Repent. It would be the last race the horse would run for trainer Frank Springer and owner Russell Reineman because Bob Baffert and Prince Ahmed Salman bought the horse after the blowout win. The Prince had owned Point Given so the Derby owed him something it seemed.
I’m not sure what Baffert’s immediate plans were for the horse but he had less than a month to prepare him for the Derby and even Bob Baffert will tell you that he didn’t have to do much to get him ready. This was a horse that absolutely matured within the span of a few months and had developed into a real race horse.
That he had done it mostly in obscurity running at lowly Sportsman Park meant that most handicappers – myself included – discounted the horse. Most of us thought that he beat no one and anyway, could Baffert really transform this horse into a mile and a quarter horse in a few weeks. After all, War Emblem was a stone cold front runner who ran his opponents off their feet and trying those tactics in the Kentucky Derby were futile and a path to last place.
I wonder what the horses odds would have been if Baffert’s name had not been listed next to the entry on the program. As it was, War Emblem went off at 20-1 and went off out of the gate like he was shot out of a cannon. He opened up a few lengths, was never challenged while setting a sensible pace and opened up in the stretch to win by four widening lengths.
He was never on my radar screen when picking the 2002 Derby. I was torn between Came Home the California horse and Saarland ultimately settling on Saarland who ran way up the track.
Baffert was again back on top in the most unscripted way. War Emblem would keep his hot streak alive by winning the Preakness and giving Baffert a third try in six years at the elusive Triple Crown. War Emblem would ultimately meet his condition and distance limitations in the Belmont never making the lead and running well out of the money in a race won by super longshot Sarava. A longshot that I had bet somehow.
War Emblem would go on to win the Haskell proving that Baffert could train him after all and proving to everyone that he was one helluva race horse.
Derby Record 23-4-8-1 = 107.80/52.80 profit for a $ 2 dollar win bet