Updated on 09/16/2011 7:19AM

He set the pace, he won the race


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Just as generals are always fighting the last war, jockeys frequently ride the last race. Everyone in the Kentucky Derby was acutely aware of what happened in 2001, when several horses gunned for the gate and set a fast pace that was suicidal for all of them.

Riders were so determined to avoid such a fate in Saturday's race that the 2002 Derby was like no other. Nobody moved. Allowed to set a slow pace, War Emblem and jockey Victor Espinoza led all the way to score a 20-1 upset that gave trainer Bob Baffert his third triumph in America's greatest race.

War Emblem's victory was a repeat of his front-running win in the Illinois Derby that spurred Baffert's client, Prince Ahmed Salman, to purchase him. The colt had benefited from some extraordinary luck that day when the only other speed horse in the field was scratched shortly before the race because of an arcane administrative rule. Unexpectedly, War Emblem found himself facing a field of plodders, opened a commanding lead without a challenge and romped home by more than six lengths. Though the victory was overpowering, most handicappers dismissed War Emblem at Churchill Downs because they knew he would never enjoy such a perfect set-up again.

He did.

Two or three horses had seemed capable of outrunning War Emblem for the lead or at least subjecting him to heavy pressure. Proud Citizen is a front-runner, too, but his jockey, Mike Smith, was content to sit second.

"If I gun," Smith told The Louisville Courier-Journal, "he might gun, too, and we might run each other out."

Came Home is quicker than War Emblem, but his stamina and pedigree were so questionable that jockey Chris McCarron was intent on getting him to relax and save some energy for the stretch. Medaglia d'Oro has speed, too, but when the gate opened he broke a length slow and then was jostled - just the beginning of a terrible trip. "Instead of being close to the pace like I wanted," jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. said, "I found myself behind a lot of horses." Buddha could have been one of the pacesetters, too, but he was injured and scratched Friday morning.

Because the leader was not considered a serious contender, the jockeys chasing him assumed he would tire on his own and thus didn't feel a need to go after him early. Therefore, War Emblem was able to lead after running a half mile in 47.04 seconds. The pace was moderate though not ridiculously slow, but the key was that nobody challenged anybody else and the leaders were allowed to relax. Moreover, the Churchill racing strip had been favoring speed all day. In other races on the card, front-runners got involved in seemingly suicidal head-and-head duels and still managed to hold on.

Unlike most Derbies in which horses make big moves on the turn and in the stretch, the leaders never changed positions. War Emblem, Proud Citizen, and Perfect Drift were running 1-2-3 at the first turn, and they were still 1-2-3 at the finish. The only horse gaining at the end was the unlucky Medaglia d'Oro, who got into gear in the final furlong and rallied to finish fourth.

Yet even though War Emblem was blessed by the racing gods, it would be wrong, or at least premature, to dismiss his victories in Illinois and Kentucky as flukes or to suggest that he is an unworthy addition to the roster of Derby winners. Plenty of horses benefit from favorable trips but don't run fast. War Emblem did. His time of 2:01.13 translated into a Beyer Speed figure of 114 - the third-best Derby effort in the last decade. In the Illinois Derby he had earned a 112 - by far the best effort of any horse in the field.

At the postrace press conference, Baffert cited that 112 as one of the reasons for his purchase of War Emblem. When I approached him for an interview early in the week, the first words out of his mouth were: "If this horse loses, I'm blaming you."

In view of the horse's superiority on the basis of the figures that bear my name, I have been asked by approximately 145,000 people since 6:04 p.m. Saturday if I bet the winner. I did not. Why would I bet on the fastest horse in the race when I could blow my bankroll on Essence of Dubai, the latest of Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum's ill-prepared invaders from Dubai? I had shunned War Emblem for reasons that were straight out of Handicapping 101: When a horse wins a race or earns a big figure with the aid of a favorable trip, he should be viewed with skepticism. And there is no better trip than an unchallenged early lead in a slow pace.

Can War Emblem run as impressively when other rivals put pressure on him early in a race? Most horses don't, and War Emblem has never done so in the past, but the question should be answered definitively in the Preakness. The generals will be fighting the last war, and none of them will permit War Emblem to steal away from them this time.

(c) 2002, The Washington Post