The two of them came to New York from Kentucky for the Belmont Stakes, and their horses were quartered in long, green barns separated by not more than 200 yards of asphalt roadway and shade trees. Bob Baffert was noisily chasing history; Ken McPeek was quietly in pursuit of vindication. In early April, McPeek had entered the long Triple Crown spring with two accomplished horses, while Baffert had none. So much changed so quickly.
On the first Saturday in April, McPeek's early Kentucky Derby favorite Repent was trounced in the Illinois Derby by an unknown, coal-black front-runner named War Emblem. Within a week Repent was lame and War Emblem was in Baffert's Louisville barn, famously purchased for $900,000 by Saudi Arabian prince Ahmed bin Salman of the Thoroughbred Corporation.
War Emblem won the Derby and the Preakness, twice beating McPeek's other hope, Harlan's Holiday, who had gone off as the favorite in the Derby. A few days before last Saturday's Belmont, McPeek was fired by the owner of Harlan's Holiday. Even before that the trainer was down to the long shot Sarava (owned by Paul and Susan Roy and Gary Drake) for what seemed a hopeless Belmont run. Baffert, meanwhile, was determining how best to make War Emblem horse racing's 12th Triple Crown winner and the first since Affirmed in 1978.
His plan was perfectly simple. On a thick spring morning, five days before and 750 miles away from the Belmont, Baffert stood in the empty stands at Churchill Downs watching horses work. Far across the oval War Emblem broke into a gallop. "Beautiful action," said Baffert. "So light, so athletic. I've never had a horse this talented." Between 1997 and 2001 Baffert had surrounded the Triple Crown without winning it: Silver Charm ('97) and Real Quiet ('98) took the first two legs, and last year Point Given won the last two. Strategy had often failed Baffert, but that could not happen with War Emblem. "No strategy with this horse," Baffert said that morning. "Get in the gate, break and go. Break, break, break."
In the echo of those words one of the most dynamic Triple Crown flirtations in history ended as suddenly as it had begun. At 6:15 on Saturday evening the doors on the Belmont starting gate rang open. The roar of a record crowd of 103,222 (not including Prince Ahmed, who remained in Riyadh to attend to what the Thoroughbred Corporation referred to as "family obligations") turned almost instantly to a chilling gasp as War Emblem took one unsteady step then stumbled, falling nearly to both front knees and then lurching sideways into Magic Weisner before recovering. "I thought he would fall down for sure," said Victor Espinoza, War Emblem's jockey. "The ground was gone underneath his feet."
The bobble compromised War Emblem beyond rescue. His greatest asset is a splendid, cruising gait. "He doesn't run, he floats," says Larry Sterling, who rode War Emblem in the Illinois Derby. His greatest liability is an unwillingness to run comfortably behind other horses. "We like to say he can be rated a little," says Baffert's top assistant, Jimmy Barnes, "but face it, he needs the lead so he can run freely." War Emblem's stumble not only shocked the horse, but it also forced Espinoza to run him in traffic for more than half a mile, choking him down with every stride and sapping his strength. Entering the final turn of the 1�-mile race, Espinoza gunned War Emblem into the lead along the rail, but with five furlongs still to run, the horse almost immediately flattened out, exhausted. Watching from his box, Baffert had known it was over with the horse's first misstep. After the race his nine-year-old daughter, Savannah, asked him, "Why were you shaking your head the whole time?"
For the three weeks after the Preakness, Baffert had fretted about the Belmont. "He's more confident with this horse because he's so good, but that makes him more nervous, too," said his fianc�e, Jill Moss, before the race. "He feels like he should win." Baffert worried that it might be too hot (it wasn't), that some no-hope horse and jealous trainer might try to cook War Emblem with speed (we'll never know, but with War Emblem off the lead, the pace was only modest) or that Espinoza might ride poorly, as Baffert feels Gary Stevens did on Silver Charm and Kent Desormeaux did on Real Quiet.
In fact Espinoza was probably blameless. "Horse stumbles like that, it just happens," said Mike Smith, who rode Proud Citizen to a fifth-place finish. "The rider can't do anything about it." With no Triple Crown winner since Affirmed, the record 25-year gap between Triple Crown winners Citation (1948) and Secretariat (1973) will be matched when horse racing's ultimate prize is up for grabs again next spring. "They run these races every year," said Baffert. "We'll be here again."
When Baffert returns to Belmont, he'll, find that the silks on the wooden jockey in the infield gazebo have been painted in red and white to match Sarava's colors. Just as War Emblem was fading, Edgar Prado swung Sarava right and then outran Medaglia d'Oro by half a length in a courageous stretch drive. At 70-1 he was the longest-priced winner in Belmont history and brought McPeek full circle.
Even after losing Repent, McPeek had been the Kentucky Derby favorite with Florida Derby and Blue Grass Stakes winner Harlan's Holiday, and he and his wife, Sue, were the unofficial first couple of the Churchill backstretch during Derby week. Theirs was a compelling story: Kenny was a local boy limping around on crutches, the result of a basketball injury; Sue had beaten cancer. The two cheerfully handled the hoopla, but when Harlan's Holiday ran seventh in the Derby, the circus moved on.