Here was a fairy tale on fast forward, a Kentucky Derby dream conceived and delivered in just 23 days. Lifetimes can be spent in futile pursuit of the May roses, yet this was satisfaction at light speed. It was the product of a cash transaction between a wealthy Arab prince in desperate need of a fast horse and an octogenarian Chicago businessman in equally desperate need of money to pump up his flagging enterprises. Supply and demand. Somewhere the Derby gods are crowing at their own capriciousness.
Last Saturday afternoon, beneath the twin spires of Churchill Downs, a swift, cantankerous 3-year-old colt named War Emblem stole the 128th running of the Derby with the race's first wire-to-wire win in 14 years. It was a victory flush with significance. Saudi prince Ahmed bin Salman of the Thoroughbred Corporation became the first Arab to own a Derby winner, thus finishing first in the high-stakes race within a race against Godolphin Racing of Dubai, which has spent hundreds of millions of dollars chasing the same goal. "I am proud to be the first Arab," said Prince Ahmed as he was hustled through the crowds by a small battery of bodyguards. Cultures clashed endearingly as Kentuckians thrust souvenir mint julep glasses at Prince Ahmed for his signature and shouted their approval. Congratulations, Preee-unce!
The Derby victory was the third for trainer Bob Baffert, making him just the sixth man in history to complete the hat trick. It was no ordinary win, even by this race's elevated standards. Baffert, who won in 1997 with Silver Charm and in '98 with Real Quiet, spent this Derby week in a defensive crouch. First, he sheepishly went about validating the presence in his Churchill barn of a long-shot colt he had never laid eyes on until the prince bought him for nearly a million dollars on April 11. Then he was assailed by the media when his entry of a second colt bumped another, possibly stronger, contender from the field of 20 at the last minute. In a final twist War Emblem went off at 20-1 odds on Saturday, just one year after the brilliant Point Given, also owned by the Thoroughbred Corporation and trained by Baffert, had gone off as the 2-1 favorite—only to finish fifth. (Point Given went on to win the Preakness and the Belmont.) "Who gets lucky and has that great horse land in his lap?" he had said two days before the Derby.
As it turns out, that was Baffert.
This surreal story began in early April, on a cool, smoggy California morning. Three days before the Santa Anita Derby, the top West Coast prep, Baffert stood on concrete grandstand risers at Santa Anita Park. "You've seen the movie Panic Room?" he asked. "I've got my own panic room. Four weeks before the Derby we're panicking, trying to find a Derby horse." That weekend, he would run Danthebluegrassman, who seemed to be his last hope. "Right now is a good time to sell a horse if you've got a mediocre 3-year-old," Baffert continued that morning. "Day after the Derby you won't be able to find a buyer. Right now people have money and they're looking to buy. It's like Super March Madness in April."
Danthebluegrassman finished last in the Santa Anita Derby, but that was not the most significant event in Baffert's universe on April 6. Just before that race he stood in the Santa Anita paddock and watched on a television monitor as War Emblem got loose on the lead in the Illinois Derby and crushed Repent, at the time one of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby. Baffert wasn't the only one watching: Prince Ahmed gets ESPN at home in Riyadh and also saw the race. On Sunday two calls were made: one by Baffert to the Daily Racing Form to ask what Beyer Speed Figure War Emblem had earned in Illinois (it was a freakishly high 112) and the other by Prince Ahmed to Richard Mulhall, a former trainer who's now the Thoroughbred Corporation's California-based racing manager. "I saw that race, and I wanted to know if we could buy this horse," said Prince Ahmed. Mulhall then contacted Baffert, who in turn contacted Don Brauer, a bloodstock agent in south Florida.
It was not the first time this spring that Baffert and Brauer had talked about buying a 3-year-old. "I've known Bob for 14 years," says Brauer. "We had been having discussions once a week or so, evaluating the various prep races." War Emblem was owned by 84-year-old Chicago steel executive Russell Reineman, with whom Brauer had previously done business, so Brauer called with a question: Was the horse for sale?
For some, the decision might have been excruciating. After all, War Emblem's Illinois Derby performance was good enough to earn him a trip to Louisville, though after the race both Reineman and trainer Bobby Springer had said publicly that they were in favor of skipping the Derby. "To tell you the truth," Springer says now, "I started thinking about the Kentucky Derby right after the Illinois Derby." Reineman has been in the racing game since 1950 and been to the Derby once, when Wise Times finished ninth in 1986. This could be his last chance.
There were other urgent issues. Reineman still rises at 5 a.m. and goes to work every day. His wife, Marion, died 28 years ago, and business is his passion, although in recent years his company—Crown Steel Sales, Inc. in Chicago—has struggled. "My steel company is losing money," says Reineman. "My horse business has lost money for the last two years. It's never easy to sell a horse, but in life you sometimes make tough decisions for economic reasons."
Four days after the Illinois Derby, Baffert and Mulhall watched War Emblem work out in Lexington, Ky. Springer told them that the colt had bone chips in both ankles and possibly his left knee and that he feared each workout might be his last. Undeterred, Baffert didn't even have the colt examined by a veterinarian. "I didn't want to know," he says. It was agreed that day that the Thoroughbred Corporation would buy 90% of War Emblem for $900,000; Reineman kept 10%. The deal was completed on April 11, and Baffert began pointing War Emblem toward the Derby.