We like our horse stories warm and fuzzy. We like to know that even if the owners are rich, they are also sweet or aged and deserving (all the better if they are not rich at all, but simply lucky) and that the trainer is aw-shucks humble, with manure between his toes. We like to know that the horse enjoys standing benignly in his stall, munching carrots while small children lovingly stroke the blaze on his face.
You may know by now that War Emblem, the jet-black 3-year-old who can become the first Triple Crown winner in 24 years by winning the June 8 Belmont Stakes, does not fit the mold. He was bought just three weeks before the Kentucky Derby by The Thoroughbred Corporation, owned by Saudi Arabian prince Ahmed bin Salman, a nephew of King Fahd and an excitable horseman, whose nationality (in these times) and purchasing power have alienated some Americans.
War Emblem's trainer is Bob Baffert, whose roots are in the plebian quarter horse business and who has ticked off some thoroughbred folk with his success in the Triple Crown: Baffert saddled horses that won the first two legs in 1997 and '98 and the last two in 2001. He is among the best at what he does and is not afraid to speak bluntly. As he watched Preakness rival Booklet—a smallish sprinter favored by some handicappers—grazing the day before the race, Baffert shook his head. "Needs a bigger boat," he said, paraphrasing a line from Jaws and dismissing Booklet's chances. Booklet finished 12th.
War Emblem, meantime, kicks, bites and needs two grooms to handle him. "He's hateful," says Baffert. "I don't turn my back on him." His original trainer, Bobby Springer, calls him "just plain ornery."
Yet all this is static, signifying nothing. A thoroughbred should not be judged by the humans around him nor by his demeanor in the barn, but by the heart in his chest and the legs that carry him. By those measures War Emblem should win the Belmont Stakes and join one of sport's exclusive clubs.
War Emblem is approaching brilliance with each passing race. He got an uncontested lead in the Derby and he also finished faster than any horse, covering the final VA mile in a superb 24.43 seconds. He didn't steal the Derby, he dominated it. In the Preakness, War Emblem chased no-shot sprinter Menacing Dennis through fast early fractions on a heavy track, opened up his long, efficient stride when jockey Victor Espinoza loosened his grip and held off closer Magic Weisner. Even while galloping out past the wire, War Emblem never let Magic Weisner pass him.
War Emblem is learning now, relaxing on the bit. He has what trainers call a high cruising speed, which means he runs fast with less effort than most horses. The Belmont's grueling mile and a half should not trouble him. He appears physically robust, embracing the efforts of the last month, rather than being worn down by them.
There will be fresh horses in the Belmont, including the dangerous stalker Sunday Break, who's coming off a convincing win in Saturday's Peter Pan Stakes. There will be speedballs sent out to tire War Emblem and closers hoping to pick up the pieces should he collapse. Fine. Let the would-be spoilers come, and let the critics say, as they always do when the possibility of a Triple Crown champion looms, that this horse is merely the best of a bad lot. War Emblem can prove his greatness under tough circumstances. "Fate owes me a Triple Crown," Baffert said recently. This will be the year.