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THE BELMONT STAKES

Triple Frown for Baffert

A stumbling start for War Emblem, a stunning finish for 70-1 Sarava

June 09, 2002|BILL CHRISTINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ELMONT, N.Y. — These guys with crutches are just too much for trainer Bob Baffert and his undying quest for a Triple Crown.

Four years ago, Elliott Walden, on crutches after suffering a sandlot basketball injury, still saddled Victory Gallop to beat Baffert's Real Quiet in the Belmont Stakes. Baffert came back for more this year with War Emblem, but that Kentucky Derby-Preakness winner caved in Saturday, in a Belmont won by the previously undistinguished Sarava and trainer Ken McPeek, another sometime basketballer who ditched his crutches only a few weeks ago.

"I feel like Elliott Walden without the crutches," a still hobbled McPeek said after Sarava's shocker, which produced the biggest win payoff ($142.50) in the 134 runnings of the Belmont. "If I still had mine, I would have raised them in a 'V' today."

Before the Belmont, Baffert had said that the only thing that could beat War Emblem in the 1 1/2-mile marathon would be a bad beginning, and the second step out of the gate almost deep-sixed the colt and jockey Victor Espinoza. War Emblem stumbled badly, found himself in fourth place instead of being on or near the lead, and although he made the lead for a few strides with half a mile to go, this was not Churchill Downs or Pimlico. A Belmont Park crowd of 103,222--a record for the track and also believed to be the largest turnout for a New York sports event--turned to one giant hush when Sarava and jockey Edgar Prado stormed down the stretch to beat Medaglia d'Oro by a half-length in 2:29 3/5.

War Emblem, the 6-5 favorite, struggled home eighth in the 11-horse field, beaten by 19 1/2 lengths in the worst race of his career. Instead of becoming the 12th Triple Crown champion, and the first since Affirmed in 1978, Prince Ahmed bin Salman's colt became the 16th Derby-Preakness winner to fail and the fourth in the last six years. Baffert also fell one race short with Silver Charm in 1997. War Emblem could have earned a $5-million Triple Crown bonus with a Belmont win.

The prince, who had planned to attend the Belmont, on Friday told Richard Mulhall, the general manager of his Thoroughbred Corp., that "family obligations" would prevent him from being here. Salman was represented by his younger brother, Prince Faisal bin Salman.

Asked if security considerations at Belmont might have been the reason for Ahmed bin Salman's absence, Mulhall said: "He wouldn't have his brother here if that were the case. He was very, very disappointed that he couldn't be here."

Baffert said he felt bad for Espinoza.

"It was just bad racing luck," the trainer said. "When my horse stumbled, I knew it was way too much for the poor guy to overcome. I am very disappointed. The fans didn't get a chance to see the real War Emblem. His one chink in the armor is if he breaks slow and is in behind horses, he's not at his best. I'm going to reload and hopefully come back next year."

Espinoza said War Emblem, breaking from the No. 9 stall and the third-last horse to be loaded into the gate, was standing perfectly while waiting for the start.

"The first jump, he was all right," Espinoza said. "But the second jump, he bobbled. He almost fell down before he got started up again. But after that there was nothing. We had to sit behind horses. I dropped inside, but I had lost everything at the start. I lost everything there. Then I had to wait as much as I could. I didn't want to use my horse too early."

Trainer Niall O'Callaghan, whose Wiseman's Ferry finished ninth after leading for the opening half-mile, explained how a dicey start can affect a horse.

"You can't imagine how much adrenaline a start like War Emblem's can take out of a horse. It just sucks the adrenaline right out of them, and it takes them a while to pick it up again. It's like if you're driving a car and run into something. Your whole system shuts off for a while."

Sunday Break finished third, but 9 1/2 lengths behind Medaglia d'Oro. After them came Magic Weisner, Proud Citizen, Essence Of Dubai, Like A Hero, War Emblem, Wiseman's Ferry, Perfect Drift and Artax Too. Proud Citizen needed to be vanned back to his barn after the race. X-rays showed that he cracked his front left shin. Trainer Wayne Lukas said that he will be sidelined about four months.

Sarava and Medaglia d'Oro, who was 16-1, combined for a $2 exacta worth $2,454. The $2 trifecta on the first three finishers paid $25,209, and a ticket on the first four across the line was good for $145,334.

Before the Belmont, McPeek had had a gut-wrenching week. On Tuesday, he learned that Harlan's Holiday, winner of the Florida Derby and the Blue Grass but seventh as the Derby favorite and then fourth in the Preakness, was being transferred to trainer Todd Pletcher. A sharp workout by Sarava the same day--four furlongs in :48 3/5--was not enough to temper the loss, but McPeek still entered Saturday's race quietly confident, because he thought his horse was peaking and War Emblem was vulnerable.

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