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War Emblem Is Not a Nice Little Horse

June 02, 2002|BILL CHRISTINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — An instinctive trainer, Bob Baffert likes to take a horse by a lead shank and walk it around the shedrow of the barn.

"It's a way that I can tell where I am with a horse," Baffert said. "I can gauge how a horse is feeling. When a horse is feeling good, you can sense that, a lot like the tension a fisherman feels on his line when he hooks something."

In 1996, Baffert's baptismal year at the Kentucky Derby, he almost won the race with Cavonnier, who was nosed out at the wire by Grindstone. The week after the Derby, an injured Grindstone was retired, leaving the Preakness, two weeks later, wide open for Cavonnier, who went off favored at Pimlico.

But a few days before the Preakness, Baffert grabbed Cavonnier by the shank and felt all the wrong vibes.

"He was walking around like a borrowed dog," Baffert said Friday at Churchill Downs, where he's in the final stages of training War Emblem for Saturday's Belmont Stakes and a possible sweep of the Triple Crown.

Cavonnier dropped into the Preakness with a thud, finishing fourth. The winner, Louis Quatorze, beat him by more than eighth lengths. Unfortunately, Baffert's lead-shank theory had held up.

When Baffert takes hold of the fiery War Emblem's shank, he needs a flak jacket and industrial-strength sunglasses. He doesn't call his Kentucky Derby-Preakness winner Hannibal Lecter just to get a laugh. War Emblem likes to bite other horses, people and any object that he feels might get in his way.

The morning after his Preakness victory two weeks ago, War Emblem spotted a bale of hay in a corner of the barn. With several ominous snorts, he lunged in front of Baffert, who was walking in front, and sank his teeth into the bale and threw it to the ground.

"There was a security guard nearby and he didn't know what to do," Baffert said. "He had probably never seen a horse act like that, and he was totally shocked. You can never lower your guard with this horse. And if he knows you're scared, he'll really take a shot."

Bobby Springer, War Emblem's original trainer, told Baffert about the colt's bellicose behavior shortly after the horse was sold, but it was easy to believe that Springer might have been exaggerating. He wasn't.

Going into the Preakness, War Emblem was even sending a message to rival horses that he was not to be messed with. Circling the shedrow with Baffert one morning, the colt spotted Harlan's Holiday's hay net hanging from the stall, and dived into the feed of the Florida Derby-Blue Grass winner.

"He moved so quickly that he knocked my glasses off and bent them pretty good," Baffert said.

Baffert is scheduled to marry Jill Moss, a former Louisville TV newscaster, in August. Early on, Moss volunteered to see if she could soften up War Emblem.

"Jill's gotten him to like people a little bit more than when we started," Baffert said.

Shortly after she was introduced to War Emblem, Moss turned to her fiance and said, "Why is he so hateful?"

"I don't know," Baffert said. "Some really good horses can be that way. Sunday Silence reared up one day and almost knocked out [trainer] Charlie Whittingham."

Moss tries to settle War Emblem with a steady ration of carrots and peppermints.

"When we first got him, he'd go to the track [in the morning] and try to run off," Baffert said. "Getting him to relax has been the toughest part. We keep trying to keep him from running off."

In an equipment change, Baffert switched to a ring bit, which gives War Emblem's rider more control when the horse threatens to scamper. A tongue tie--a piece of cloth that keeps the tongue in place--also has been added, and War Emblem is now outfitted with a lip cord, a leather-protected chain that runs across his upper lip.

"The cord has a tendency to keep him focused," Baffert said. "What we're really trying to do is trick him. We don't want him running too fast in the morning, that's how horses can get hurt. The cord puts pressure on the lip. That's a very sensitive area and the cord paralyzes him up there a little bit.

"It's kind of like a mother grabbing one of her kids by the ear. It gets their attention, and if he's worrying about that, he might forget about doing something else."

Before War Emblem was in his barn, Baffert was told that the horse had problem ankles and at least one suspect knee. Baffert never vetted the colt--he was visually satisfied with the horse--even though an earlier exam by Elliott Walden, another trainer, had showed bone chips in both of War Emblem's front ankles and another chip in a knee.

Other horsemen are surprised that War Emblem wasn't more thoroughly inspected before Ahmed Salman, the Saudi Arabian prince, spent $900,000 to buy him.

"It's been years since I bought a horse for any such price without vetting him," trainer Wayne Lukas said. "But having said that, it's not an exact science, and a lot of horses have had long careers after vets have said they've only got one more race left in them. Charlie Whittingham used to say, 'Don't take pictures, you might find something.' [Wayne's son Jeff Lukas] had a great saying. He'd say that chips bother horsemen, not horses."

For War Emblem's iffy ankles, Baffert regularly injects the colt with Legend, a relatively new anti-inflammatory medication.

"It's expensive," Baffert said, "but I give it to a lot of my good horses. It creates fluid, and helps lubricate the joints."

Another win Saturday and War Emblem will become a legend and a living advertisement for Legend, all in one swoop.

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