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Updated on 09/16/2011 9:32AM
BC Countdown - Classic: Final chapter of racing's biggest story
ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - The odyssey has come full circle, and what a long, strange trip it's been. War Emblem began his career exactly 55 weeks ago at Arlington Park, winning a one-mile maiden race. Saturday, he closes his meteoric career by attempting to secure the title of Horse of the Year in the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic, highlight of the 19th World Thoroughbred Championships.
In the interim, War Emblem was sold by his original owner three weeks before the Kentucky Derby. He subsequently won the Derby; was mired in controversy over a $1 million bonus tied to the Illinois Derby and Kentucky Derby; won the Preakness Stakes; missed a bid for the Triple Crown by stumbling in the Belmont Stakes; had his owner, a Saudi Arabian prince, die, apparently of a heart attack; and then was sold for breeding interests to the leading farm in Japan, where he will go following the Breeders' Cup.
Win or lose Saturday, he has been the biggest story in racing in 2002.
"Controversy seems to follow him, but he doesn't know it," Bob Baffert, War Emblem's trainer, said at Arlington Park. "We've had some high times, and we've had some low times. I wish we could run him next year. He's become part of the family. I've become attached to the horse."
Richard Mulhall, the president of The Thoroughbred Corporation, under which the late Prince Ahmed Salman raced, acknowledged the Classic would be bittersweet. "It is because the prince isn't here," Mulhall said. Mulhall said he did not believe anyone from the prince's immediate family would attend the race.
War Emblem is one of several Classic runners who could secure Horse of the Year with a victory. Came Home, Evening Attire, and Medaglia d'Oro also could lay claim to the title should they win. But there are other horses - most notably Distaff favorite Azeri - competing in the day's eight rich races who also have a shot at Horse of the Year.
The Classic is the eighth and final Breeders' Cup race. The Breeders' Cup comprises races 3 through 10 on an 11-race Arlington card that begins at 11:05 a.m. Central time. The Distaff, the first Breeders' Cup race, is scheduled for 12:20 p.m. The races will be televised live by NBC in a five-hour program beginning at noon Central time.
The event is a sellout. There is no walk-up admission for this Breeders' Cup. All fans have assigned seats, and more than 45,000 tickets have been sold.
Those fans better bundle up. It was cloudy and cold with a light, steady rain on Thursday, and the National Weather Service forecast calls for showers continuing through Saturday with a high in the low-50's.
The track was rated good for training Thursday morning. "If the track stays like this, they'll never beat him," said Frank "Bobby" Springer, the Arlington-based trainer who trained War Emblem for the first seven starts of his career before his sale to Prince Ahmed.
Springer accompanied Baffert Thursday morning when War Emblem was taken to the starting gate for a schooling session, which was requested by Arlington starter Bill Knott. War Emblem, who has a history of gate problems, stood perfectly in the gate with exercise rider Larry Damore, then had a spirited gallop.
This is the first Breeders' Cup held at Arlington, the palatial racetrack a half-hour's drive from downtown Chicago. The main track is 1 1/8 miles in circumference. Because of that, this year's races for 2-year-olds, the Juvenile and Juvenile Fillies, will be run at 1 1/8 miles - instead of 1 1/16 miles - for the first time. The turf course, praised by jockeys as the best in the country, is one mile in circumference.
There are some new challenges for bettors, too. There will be head-to-head wagers offered in all eight races; in the Classic, for instance, the bet matches War Emblem with European invader Hawk Wing. There is a 10 percent takeout on the bet, which has a $2 minimum. It is designed to appeal to gamblers more familiar with sports betting. More popular with sophisticated race fans figures to be the Breeders' Cup Ultra Pick Six, which begins with the Mile and ends with the Classic. There are rolling pick threes, as well as trifectas and superfectas, encompassing all Breeders' Cup races.
An outstanding day of racing, featuring $14.1 million in purses, is in the offing. Trainer Aidan O'Brien has brought several top-class runners from his base in Ireland, including internationally ranked turf runners High Chaparral and Rock of Gibraltar, the early favorites in the Turf and Mile, respectively. The fields in the Distaff and Sprint are chock-a-block with outstanding runners. Three horses - Kona Gold in the Sprint, Banks Hill in the Filly and Mare Turf, and Macho Uno in the Classic - are seeking to become two-time Breeders' Cup winners. Kona Gold will become the first horse to compete in five Breeders' Cups.
The Classic, at 1 1/4 miles, has an intriguing mix of older horses, 3-year-olds, and a turf specialist based in Europe. The one they all will have to catch is War Emblem. His best races, Baffert concedes, are when he makes the lead. In his final start, there will be no turning back.
"He needs to break. The two times he didn't break," Baffert said, referring to the Belmont and Del Mar's Pacific Classic, "we tried to rate him, and that didn't work."
War Emblem's pace rival could be E Dubai, who drew the rail. He has not raced in 3 1/2 months, but he is the only other horse in the race who has the kind of innate, wicked speed possessed by War Emblem.
Medaglia d'Oro, the winner of the Travers Stakes, could get an ideal, stalking trip. His trainer, Bobby Frankel, brought Medaglia d'Oro into this race off a layoff because he ran so well fresh in this summer's Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga.
"He's got his own cruising speed. All my horses are training well," said Frankel, who has seven Breeders' Cup runners. "I've done my job. Every work came out the way I wanted it."
Frankel also has late-running Milwaukee Brew in the Classic.
Came Home, like War Emblem, is a 3-year-old who will be making his final start before going to stud. He has an outstanding record of nine wins in 11 starts, has won at 1 1/4 miles, and beat older rivals in the Pacific Classic. He ran poorly in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile when his training was interrupted by a minor ankle injury. He has had no setbacks this fall. His trainer, the usually reticent Paco Gonzalez, has been outspokenly confident preceding this race.
"Last year, we lost time with the horse. This is our time," Gonzalez said.
Evening Attire has come to the fore this fall with a victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. He has the best current form of the older horses in this field. Evening Attire and Macho Uno are the only two Classic runners who arrived here before this week. Patrick Kelly, the trainer of Evening Attire, believes the extra training time at Arlington will be an advantage.
Hawk Wing, never worse than second in nine starts in Europe and a two-time Group 1 winner, will be making his first start on dirt. He is bred for the surface, however, being a son of Woodman.
"He's trained at home on wood chips. It's not as demanding as dirt, but it is an artificial surface," said O'Brien, Hawk Wing's trainer.
Hawk Wing's jockey, John Velazquez, is the only rider with a mount in all eight Breeders' Cup races.
Hawk Wing is adding Lasix, meaning all Classic runners will race on that medication. Volponi, second in the Meadowlands Cup in his last start, is the only runner making a change in equipment. He is adding blinkers.
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