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Cordero's Ride in '76 Might Be the Blueprint

June 06, 2002|BILL CHRISTINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ELMONT, N.Y. — For a primer on how to ride a front-running horse in the Belmont Stakes, your research can start and end with Angel Cordero. The retired Hall of Famer's record in the Belmont--21 mounts, only one win--must have bankrupted scores of horseplayers, but in 1976 he nursed Bold Forbes, a notorious speedster, to victory. That might have been the cleverest ride in the 133 runnings of the race.

Bold Forbes, brilliantly trained by another expert horseman, Laz Barrera, had carried his speed to victory in the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby, before he was overhauled and finished third in the Preakness. For the Triple Crown windup--at 1 1/2 miles the longest test in the series--Barrera's colt was thought to be vulnerable. He was bound to run out of steam, the wise guys were saying, by the end of his tour of Belmont Park's tiring circumference.

Bold Forbes and Cordero sent the skeptics muttering into the night. Six lengths ahead with half a mile left, the colt barely lasted at the wire. McKenzie Bridge and Great Contractor ran 2-3. Respectively, they were only a neck and a neck short, but the payoff in the Belmont is not the margin but the muster. Cordero never worked harder to bag a big one.

Bold Forbes' name comes up because on Saturday War Emblem, another on-the-engine type, will try to win the 134th Belmont and become the 12th horse--the first since Affirmed in 1978--to blitz the Triple Crown. War Emblem waltzed home in the Kentucky Derby off an uncontested lead, and then was a grittier, slightly off-the-pace winner in the Preakness three weeks ago. He'll be the speed in the race Saturday, in a Belmont that is largely what-you-see-is-what-you-get. There's no intrigue, nor any deep strategy to speak of. War Emblem will either live or die by the pace.

Even the post positions appear to be of no import. War Emblem won from the 5-hole in the Derby and triumphed after breaking from No. 8 in the Preakness, and on Wednesday, in a 12-horse field, he drew the 10, which seemed to please trainer Bob Baffert.

"We wanted to be on the outside," Baffert said. "This is a fast horse, and he can leave from there and dictate the race. [A clean break] will be very important. I'm not worried. All I've got to do is put the saddle on him."

Of the other speed in the race, Proud Citizen, second in the Derby and third in the Preakness, drew the No. 9 post, and Wiseman's Ferry, on the Triple Crown trail for the first time, came up with No. 3. The suspicion is that Wiseman's Ferry, who has been a gate-to-wire winner of his last two races, will be battling War Emblem early.

"Those two horses should hook up," Baffert said. "I just hope they don't go too fast. I hope my horse disposes of the horses that take him on early, and then has enough left for the stretch."

War Emblem, who was 20-1 in the Derby and the 5-2 favorite in the Preakness, is listed as the even-money favorite on the morning line. After that there's a quantum jump to Proud Citizen at 5-1 and Sunday Break at 6-1.

"Fitness means more in this race because of the distance," said Cordero, now a jockey agent whose rider, John Velazquez, doesn't have a mount Saturday. "Most American horses are just not bred to run this far. In the Belmont, horses get late [tire] quicker than they do in shorter races. The key is to get your horse to relax, so he can conserve his energy for the finish."

Asked if War Emblem will end the Triple Crown drought, Cordero said:

"I think he will. He's a stronger horse than Bold Forbes was. I see only two horses in there that might possibly beat him. Wayne's horse [trainer Wayne Lukas' Proud Citizen] and Neil's horse [trainer Neil Drysdale's Sunday Break]. Sunday Break's a fresh horse, the kind that sometimes wins the Belmont."

Every other trainer in the Belmont is counting on Baffert's colt caving in after running too fast early. The typically slow first fractions for this race look like typographical errors. War Emblem and his jockey, Victor Espinoza, sat off a 46-second opening half-mile in the Preakness, a split that was faster than even the inimitable Secretariat's in the 1973 Belmont.

"If War Emblem runs that fast Saturday, he'll get beat," said Bobby Frankel, who trains Medaglia d'Oro. Frankel's colt, after a fourth-place finish with excuses in the Derby, had no alibis after his eighth-place finish in the Preakness, but here he is, four-legged testimony to why the Triple Crown is so tough. The woodwork can be full with pretenders, and sometimes they get in the way, or even win the race.

"It's a mile and a half, but it's still a speed race," Frankel said. "There have been exceptions, but usually the horse on the lead at the quarter pole wins it. Somebody's got to pressure War Emblem early. If he gets an easy early lead, he'll be tough to catch."

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Belmont Field

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