Remembering War Emblem

It was an odd road to the 2002 Kentucky Derby (G1) for the two Derby Dominators, Bob Baffert and Wayne Lukas. Baffert and Lukas had seen one Derby hopeful after another fall by the wayside. It seemed apparent the two trainers who had paved so many new routes to Churchill Downs were heading smack into a dead end. Each day, they would ask each other, "Got anything yet?" The response would always be, "No, nothing." Then, just before the Santa Anita Derby, Lukas told Baffert, "I think I've got one."

That one was Proud Citizen. Lukas put the colt, who had been working sensationally, into the Santa Anita Derby (G1) cold off the layoff in a bold and daring attempt to leap back into the Derby picture. Baffert had to rely on Danthebluegrassman, whose best running had come in his three forays up north at Golden Gate Fields. At the finish, Proud Citizen was seventh and Danthebluegrassman was eighth and last. The rapidly fading images of the Twin Spires had now all but disappeared from view for the two Derby dominators. But still, they forged on, groping their way in the dark, searching for even a flicker of light to lead the way back to their promised land.

Lukas had one fleeting chance, and that was to hope for a victory in the April 20 Coolmore Lexington Stakes (G2) at Keeneland. Otherwise, his journey to Louisville would end some 65 miles short of its destination.

Baffert had all but conceded that he would miss his first Derby since splashing onto the scene with Cavonnier in 1996, though he'd be at Churchill Downs to saddle Habibti in the Kentucky Oaks (G1). "It bothers me not being in the Derby," he said. "It’s going to be weird being there for the Kentucky Oaks and not have one in the Derby. I just have to resign myself to the fact I’m not going to be in it."

But unbeknownst to Baffert, his entire year was about to change due to an event that took place shortly after the Santa Anita Derby, 2,000 miles away at Sportsman's Park. It was there that the little-known War Emblem, trained by the little-known Frank "Bobby" Springer, and ridden by the little-known Larry Sterling Jr., demolished his field, including early Kentucky Derby favorite Repent, in the Illinois Derby (G2), winning by 6 1/4 lengths for owner Russell Reineman.

A few days later, Baffert received a phone call from a Daily Racing Form reporter and asked if the writer knew what Beyer Speed Figure Santa Anita Derby winner Came Home had received. He was told 96. Then he asked what the Illinois Derby winner received, and was told 112. "Wow, that horse is a freak!" Baffert thought. 

Baffert was still haunted by the 2001 Kentucky Derby, and the failure of his budding superstar, Point Given. Not even subsequent victories in the Preakness (G1) and Belmont (G1) Stakes by the big chestnut could erase the painful images of the Derby.

Baffert was devastated, because he knew what he had, and said, “It'll be a long time before I come here with a horse like this."

Springer had decided that War Emblem was not a Derby horse, and would be pointed for the Lexington Stakes as a prep for the Preakness. With a million-dollar bonus for winning the Illinois Derby and any one of the Triple Crown races on the line, Springer felt that was the best way to go.

Baffert had one last shot to make the Derby. He contacted bloodstock agent Don Brauer to see if could buy War Emblem. He had several owners to whom he could offer the colt, including Prince Ahmed Salman of The Thoroughbred Corp, who owned Point Given. 

Then came the much-anticipated phone call.

"We got him, baby," Brauer said to Baffert. "We've just got to get it signed."

Baffert called Salman to offer him the horse, and when he accepted, he told him he needed his OK, but warned him the colt had a chip in his ankle and had already failed a vet's exam from a previous deal that fell through. All they would do is scope him. The Prince gave him the go-ahead. Baffert and Mulhall went to Keeneland, where War Emblem was stabled, and watched him train. That was good enough. After an hour of negotiating, the colt was theirs for $900,000, with Reineman retaining 10 percent.

Springer spent his final day with War Emblem, as the son of Our Emblem was scheduled to be transferred to Baffert's barn at Churchill Downs the following morning barring anything unforeseen happening to stop the sale of the colt.

"It a done deal," Springer said. "You have to be realistic about these things. Let's just say it was a pretty good deal for both sides. The Derby isn't the way I would have gone with him, but I'll be rooting for the horse all the way. I wish nothing but the best for him."

The word spread rapidly. Baffert had bought his way into the Derby. His critics were quick to jump all over him, but Baffert couldn't understand the criticism.

 "This is why we're in the business," he said one morning prior to the Derby. "It's part of the game. When a baseball player breaks his bat, does he go back to the locker room? No, he gets another bat. That's what I did, I got another bat. My job is to get people to the major races. If we didn't buy him, someone else probably would have. You cannot put a price on the satisfaction of watching a horse that you own win the Derby in your colors."

So, Baffert was in the Derby for the seventh straight year, but there was work to be done and not a lot of time to do it. There was a lot more to War Emblem than working him and throwing a saddle on him. The colt was mean, strong, and was used to getting his own way. He'd pin his ears in his stall, and pity any passerby who wasn't paying attention. You couldn't get a bridle on him and you couldn't saddle him in the paddock. There was more to this Black Beauty than Baffert realized.

Springer had filled Baffert in on War Emblem's character flaws, wished him good luck, and headed back home to Chicago, where he'd watch the Derby on television. Baffert realized a Derby horse had fallen into his lap, and appreciated the work Springer had done with him. He told Springer if he did win one of the Triple Crown races, he would split his share of the bonus with him.

Baffert had to teach War Emblem to relax and control all that aggression. Instead of using the standard D-bit and noseband in which he had been running, Baffert changed to a ring bit for better control and put on a tongue tie to help prevent him from displacing his soft palate. The colt responded to Baffert's feeding program and soon began to put on weight. Once too aggressive with the pony, he now was more settled. Each day, his gallops got stronger, and his works were smooth as silk.

"Damn," Baffert thought, "this sonofabitch can run."

He realized he had a horse who was ready to peak. Everything was falling into place. He could actually win the Derby, and with a horse he had never heard of a month earlier.

Meanwhile, Lukas ran Proud Citizen in the Lexington and the son of Gone West wired his field by 3 1/4 lengths at odds of 8-1. Just like that, Lukas was in the Derby as well. A sense of normalcy had returned to Churchill Downs.

War Emblem ran to his works and gallops. He stormed to the lead and just ran his field into the ground, winning by four lengths over Proud Citizen in a rapid 2:01.13. But this was not your typical front-running performance.

War Emblem's final quarter of :24.43 was the fastest in history by a frontrunner. The only other front-running Derby winner to break :25 in modern times was Swaps, who came home in :24 4/5, before such times were clocked in hundredths of a second. Old Rosebud closed in :24 3/5 in 1914. To show just how impressive War Emblem's closing time was, the average final quarter of the 13 other front-running Derby winners since War Admiral in 1937 was :25 4/5. Of the Triple Crown winners who wired their field in the Derby, War Admiral closed in :25 4/5, Count Fleet closed in :26 2/5, and Sir Barton trudged home in :28 on a heavy track. Seattle Slew, who pressed the early pace in the Derby, came home in :26 1/5.

To begin the story of Preakness 2002, and all the events that led up to this moment, we need only go back three days before the race. It is 11:10 a.m. May 15 and the Tex Sutton Boeing 727 comes to a stop outside a cargo terminal at Baltimore Washington International Airport. The first horse off the plane is the Derby winner, his black coat shining in the late morning sun. There is nothing wild about the beast as his groom, Roberto Luna, leads him into one of the back stalls on the waiting Sallee horse van. Luna continuously strokes the bottom of the colt's chin, and he just stands there, occasionally looking out the window at this foreign environment. This is the first time the horse has ever flown. He looks nothing like the colt who attempted to savage two hotwalkers back at Churchill Downs earlier that morning. By the time he arrives at Pimlico, Baffert is there waiting for him.

Baffert referred to War Emblem as a stealth bomber--fast, deadly, and able to fly undetected under the radar screen. He still was fast and deadly, but the radar had picked him up after his Derby raid, and all guns were now pointed at him.

War Emblem, whom Baffert said "can be sweet at times," returned to his irascible ways once bedded down in his stall. His gallops over the next several mornings showed he was as powerful as ever, and he just glided over the Pimlico surface. It took all of exercise rider Mick Jenner's strength to pull him up. There was no doubt he was ready for whatever the enemy was going to throw at him.

Despite the bull's-eye on War Emblem's back, Baffert remained confident, as he saw the colt improve and get stronger by the day. "If it's a dogfight, he'll pass," he said. "He's a tough horse. The question isn't whether he can rate; it's whether the others can keep up with him. They're going to need a rope to tow 'em if they want to stay close to him. I know those other trainers respect him now, because they're scared to death of him."

Eddie Thomas, who has worked part-time as a hotwalker, groom, and foreman for Baffert the past six years and who worked closely with Affirmed for his "adopted" father, Laz Barrera, had been called in from his home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., to help out through the Triple Crown. When he was asked one morning at Pimlico to remove War Emblem's poultice, he had to refuse.

"I told them, 'I'm not touching him,' " Thomas said. "I didn't know him well enough to be put in that position. I broke out in a sweat just thinking about being around him, because he was giving off so much energy. He's at such a high level now."

The morning of the race, Baffert sat on a chair near War Emblem’s stall, when the track veterinarian showed up to examine the colt, taking it upon himself to walk into the stall.

“Watch this,” Baffert said. Sure enough, you immediately heard a cacophony of loud noises coming from the stall, and a few seconds later, the vet came dashing out as if he were being chased by a pack of wolves. It was then up to Baffert’s help to figure out a way for the vet to examine the colt, using everything from mints to a lip chain.

That high energy level Eddie Thomas alluded to came out again in the Preakness, as War Emblem tracked the pace this time and went on to score by three-quarters of a length.

War Emblem's opening half of :46 (over a dull drying out track) was the fastest in the last 17 years. The last Preakness winner to run a faster opening half and win was Seattle Slew. Few horses have ever demonstrated such brilliant displays of speed both early and late in their races.

As for War Emblem's recuperative powers, he savaged the outrider's pony after the Preakness, and the morning after the race, when many horses would have been a bit knocked out, War Emblem was a wild horse, trying to bite anyone who came near him and trying to buck and jump in his stall. It took the groom and hotwalker several minutes to get the lip chain on him for his walk. What was most telling was the brightness of his eye. This colt's eyes have so much life in them, even after a hard race like the Preakness. What's remarkable about his disposition is that he can shut off the "Hannibal Lector" routine at any time and will let you pet him and feed him mints. Assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes said the mints are his trick to putting on the lip chain. Even the crumpling of the paper will do the trick.

Yes, War Emblem was a speed horse, but he had plenty of stamina in his pedigree. These are his four third-generation sires on his female side: Herbager – one of the great stamina influences in the world; Sky High II – the sire of Autobiography, who won the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup by 15 lengths over Key to the Mint and Riva Ridge; Con Brio II – a son of Ribot, one of the greatest stamina influences of all time; Brigadier Gerard – although mainly a mile and a quarter horse, he did win the mile and a half King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, and also won his first 16 races.

In War Emblem's first five generations on his sire side, there are five Belmont Stakes winners – Native Dancer, Nashua, Damascus, Count Fleet and Sword Dancer. He also has Buckpasser, the broodmare sire of the three Belmont winners (Touch Gold, Easy Goer, and Coastal); Raise a Native, the paternal grandsire of four Belmont winners (Affirmed, Easy Goer, Coastal; and Conquistador Cielo); Mr. Prospector, the sire of Belmont winner Conquistador Cielo and paternal grandsire of Belmont winners Thunder Gulch, Commendable, and Editor's Note.

But, as we all know, the Belmont was a disaster, as it was a miracle he didn’t go down after stumbling at the start. Fortunately, he collided with another horse, which kept him from falling.

War Emblem recovered from the Belmont and went on to win the Haskell Invitational (G1) by 3 1/2 lengths, but lost his last two starts, then was retired.

His final years at Old Friends were memorable for owner and founder Michael Blowen, who became quite attached to the horse and would constantly race him along the fence. It was obvious the horse loved it, still relishing the competition, and did until the day he died.

War Emblem will always be remembered as one of the fastest, most brilliant, and fascinating horses in many years, with an aggressive personality that spilled out onto the racetrack.  Racing’s Black Beauty is gone, but his memory will live on for those who were close to him and who joined him in his extraordinary journey through the Triple Crown.

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