NEW YORK — Bob Baffert has already proclaimed War Emblem a "superhorse," and stopped just short of guaranteeing that his colt will become the first Triple Crown champion in nearly a quarter-century.
The trainer made his remarks the morning after War Emblem added the Preakness Stakes to his Kentucky Derby victory.
Should he conquer the one mile in the Belmont Stakes on June 8, War Emblem would give racing its 12th Triple Crown winner and first since Affirmed in 1978.
But even if War Emblem completes his remarkable rise to stardom, does the speedy black colt deserve to be in the same company as such Triple Crown greats as Citation (1948), Secretariat (1973) and Seattle Slew (1977)?
"To this point, you'd have to consider him a substandard Triple Crown winner compared to Affirmed, Seattle Slew, Citation," said Steve Cauthen, "The Kid" who rode Affirmed. "But if he goes on and continues to prove himself to be a true champion, he'll be remembered with them."
Penny Chenery, who owned Secretariat, said War Emblem certainly has a chance to earn his place among racing's greats.
"He's either the best horse in 25 years--or the luckiest," said Chenery. "But I don't think the end of the Triple Crown is definitive. He'll have to go on and beat horses that weren't ready in the spring. And then he'd have to prove he can keep going."
The last four Triple Crown winners--Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed--were all considered exceptional racehorses from the start, as were Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943) and War Admiral (1937). Indeed, Secretariat was Horse of the Year at age 2.
By contrast, Sir Barton did not win a race before the 1919 Kentucky Derby, and Gallant Fox (1930) and his son Omaha (1935) showed only flashes of promise as 2-year-olds.
But after sweeping the Triple Crown, they all continued winning and proving themselves worthy champions.
Angel Cordero Jr., a Hall of Fame jockey who has won the Kentucky Derby three times, said War Emblem still has some running to do before he's recognized as "exceptional."
"Winning the Triple Crown is a very big step, but he'll have to do more," Cordero said. "Just beating 3-year-olds doesn't mean great. He's got to beat older horses, too."
While War Emblem has rolled to four straight victories, his past could play a part in determining his legacy. He won but two modest races as a 2-year-old, and finished a distant sixth to Repent in his first stakes race, the Risen Star, a Grade 3 race at the Fair Grounds.
Even after he won the Illinois Derby on April 6, his 84-year-old owner Russell Reineman thought he had no shot in the Kentucky Derby, and was happy to sell 90 percent of him to Saudi Prince Ahmed bin Salman for $900,000 three weeks before the Derby.
None of this should be held against War Emblem, but it might.
"There's been a lot of criticism but it's not the horse's fault," Chenery said.
Added trainer Shug McGaughey, whose Easy Goer spoiled Sunday Silence's Triple Crown bid in 1989: "Because of the way it came about, I just don't know if it would mean as much in the annals of racing as it would normally. It certainly would be a great accomplishment, though."
Completing the Derby-Preakness-Belmont grind--five weeks, three race tracks, three distances--is an enormous achievement in itself.
"I have a lot of respect for those Triple Crown winners," Baffert said. "They were really tough, good horses. It can be done, but it's got to be done by a tough, fast horse."
And that's exactly what Baffert has. War Emblem went wire to wire in winning the Derby by four lengths over Proud Citizen, then took the Preakness by three-quarters of a length over 45-1 shot Magic Weisner.
After the Preakness, some trainers said the opposition may be subpar.
"This year's crop isn't really super," said Nancy Alberts, the owner-breeder-trainer of Magic Weisner. "That's why my mediocre horse looked so good."
So good, in fact, Magic Weisner will try again in the Belmont. So will Proud Citizen and as many as 13 others in what could be the largest Belmont field with a Triple Crown on the line.
Trainer John Ward won't be sending Booklet to New York. Ward, who trained 2001 Derby winner Monarchos, said last year he believed the next Triple Crown winner would come from a mediocre group of 3-year-olds.
"I hate to say it, but my prophecy of last year may come true," Ward said after Booklet ran 12th in the Preakness.
Baffert will arrive in New York for his third Triple try in six years. He says it's his strongest.
"There's nobody faster than him. He just goes," said Baffert. "As long as he stays like he is, it shouldn't be a problem."
Baffert nearly won with Silver Charm in 1997 and Real Quiet in 1998. Both won the Derby and Preakness, but Silver Charm was beaten three-quarters of a length by Touch Gold and Real Quiet lost by a nose to Victory Gallop in their Belmonts.
This will be the eighth time since 1978 that a Triple Crown is on the line in the Belmont, and Chenery feels a breakthrough is imminent.
"This is going to be the moment," she said.