05/20/2002 12:00AM

A gutsy performance in Baltimore


BALTIMORE - War Emblem showed he has speed when he won the Illinois Derby. He showed he could win the big one in the Kentucky Derby. And in Saturday's Preakness Stakes, War Emblem showed he has perhaps the most important ingredient of all: heart.

It was the presence in the Preakness of Menacing Dennis, the rank outsider at 51-1, that enabled War Emblem to demonstrate his courage. Contrary to what anyone might say, Menacing Dennis had as much right to enter the Preakness as, say, Danthebluegrassman had entering the Kentucky Derby. And despite what anyone may say, it wasn't stupid for Menacing Dennis to set sail for the lead at the expense of War Emblem.

Menacing Dennis has California sprint speed. What was he supposed to do? Take back and get out of the way?

Of course not. Menacing Dennis went out and ran his race. And because he made sure that War Emblem would have to work hard for his money, Menacing Dennis epitomized the adversity that War Emblem had to face. Because he overcame that adversity, everyone should have a much deeper appreciation for War Emblem and far more respect for him than if he had gotten off with another walk in the park like he did in Louisville.

Headstrong early, even under a stout rating hold from Victor Espinoza, War Emblem pushed Menacing Dennis through fractions of 22.87 seconds, 46.10, and 1:10.60. Those times were quick over a Pimlico surface that, although upgraded to fast six races earlier, was not producing truly fast times. Such a pace battle would have softened up a lesser horse, but it only seemed to embolden War Emblem for two more serious challenges to come.

Derby runner-up Proud Citizen made a big run at War Emblem in midstretch, but War Emblem turned him back. Then local hero Magic Weisner unleashed a bold late rush, but War Emblem had the wire safely measured.

Magic Weisner, at 45-1, was the big surprise in the Preakness, as he gained 5 3/4 lengths on War Emblem in the final furlong to be second. But Proud Citizen ran an especially good race finishing third. Proud Citizen broke out a bit at the start, was caught five wide around the first turn, and was farther back early than he had ever been in a two-turn race. Yet for a moment in midstretch, he had more than a few people thinking he would catch War Emblem. It is very much to his credit he was beaten only 1 1/2 lengths.

So now War Emblem goes on to the June 8 Belmont Stakes as the 27th horse to have the opportunity to win the Triple Crown. Eleven have succeeded and 15 failed, and the natural inclination is to wonder where War Emblem fits.

It's all subjective, of course, but at this stage of his career, War Emblem may be better than at least one who did sweep the Triple Crown and not as good as a few who were stopped in the Belmont. At the same point in his career as some who were denied the Triple Crown in the Belmont, War Emblem isn't as good as Majestic Prince (1969) or Sunday Silence (1989), and certainly not as good as Spectacular Bid, who in 1979 became the best horse to be denied the Crown in the Belmont. But he is probably better than Omaha, who did win in 1935, with a loss in the Withers sandwiched in between the Preakness and Belmont.

How War Emblem fares in the Belmont will depend again on pace, two potentially very serious opponents who were not seen at Pimlico - Perfect Drift and Sunday Break - and how he handles the Belmont's demanding 1 1/2-mile distance. But no matter what happens, War Emblem has already scored three big wins: He won the Derby, he won the Preakness, and with his gutsy performance in the Preakness, he won over his critics.

A couple of other Preakness thoughts:

* I still hate the way NBC shows its races, with constant, jarring camera cuts instead of a simple pan shot that would allow viewers to follow the horses. But kudos to NBC for help in exposing the fallacy that Pimlico is a tighter-turned track than Churchill Downs with a graphic as the horses were approaching the gate. A tip of the hat to horseback reporter Donna Barton for noting that the false perception may be because Pimlico is merely a narrower track than Churchill.

* If Booklet really was going to go early in the Preakness and be the controlling speed, as his people insisted all week, then post 2 would have been selected for him at the draw instead of post 10, outside War Emblem, where he could react to what War Emblem and everyone else inside of him would do. Not only was no attempt made on Booklet's behalf to go with Menacing Dennis, he wasn't even put ahead of War Emblem early. Heck, he was merely head and head with Medaglia d'Oro early. Just further proof that actions say more than "trainerspeak."