05/30/2002 12:00AM

His dear old golden school days

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ST. MATTHEWS, S.C. - As he drove his truck home from Fasig-Tipton's 2-year-old sale in Maryland last week, Webb Carroll got a chill just thinking about it: War Emblem had just won the Preakness Stakes and was poised to become the 12th Triple Crown winner in racing history.

And Carroll helped him get there.

Carroll, 57, owns a training center outside tiny St. Matthews, S.C. (population about 2,200). He won't be in the winner's circle if War Emblem pulls off the Triple Crown feat by winning the June 8 Belmont Stakes. His name won't be in the headline or even the last paragraph of War Emblem's Belmont story.

But Carroll's breaking and training program was key in transforming War Emblem from a gangly, assertive yearling into a professional runner. In less patient hands, the tough black colt could have "zagged when he should have zigged," as Carroll put it, and become a speed-crazy rogue. The early lessons Carroll and his 35-man staff put into War Emblem in seven formative months from November 2000 to June 2001 helped turn the headstrong colt into a Triple Crown contender.

War Emblem's education started a week after his van shipped in to the training center from breeder Charles Nuckols's farm in Midway, Ky., on Nov. 2, 2000. He arrived nameless and with the fuzzy beginnings of a winter coat. He shipped to trainer Bobby Springer's barn in Chicago seven months later with a van load of other new runners for owner Russell Reineman, a sleek, fit animal with a hunger to run and a habit of pulling hard during his gallops.

The Webb Carroll Training Center is well situated to promote a peaceful education. The main facility, a 30-acre parcel Carroll bought from trainer Odie Clelland, sits in the middle of purple-flowering lupin fields owned by the local Wannamaker Seed Co. Carroll's seven-eighths of a mile training track is watered by Wannamaker's irrigation system as it sweeps around the plowed fields. Carroll leases a second 30-acre farm nearby that sits in a shady pine grove.

In those settings, War Emblem thrived. But in a class that included about 60 other yearlings from an array of clients, he wasn't a standout. "When he got here, he was just one of the boys," Carroll said. "Just a good-looking, good-feeling colt."

Carroll's specialty is, in his words, "putting the bottom in a young horse." He is a Thoroughbred's elementary school teacher, the man who oversees a colt's transformation from unbroken yearling to runner, bringing the horse through a series of new experiences: girth tightening, a rider swinging up on the stirrup, confinement in the narrow starting gate, a timed breeze around a dirt oval.

Horses rushed through any part of the process may stall or backslide in their training, wasting valuable time they could have used racing and earning purses for their owners. The risks of pushing too hard are acute with a horse like War Emblem. A powerful, strong-willed colt with a fierce desire to run and rocketing speed is like a bottle of nitroglycerine: Shake it up too much and it explodes. Carroll's training program, which emphasizes long gallops and exposure to racetrack situations, avoids those kinds of pitfalls.

War Emblem progressed at an average pace. The breaking process takes several weeks, starting with introduction of saddle and bridle, and then bellying, a process in which a rider leaned across War Emblem's back while another worker led the colt around the stall. Once War Emblem fully accepted equipment and a rider outside the barn, he headed to the track with the rest of his class for the more specific lessons of how to be a racehorse.

Carroll's program is known for its extensive gate work, which gets young horses used to the clanking machinery and to the activities of the assistant starters who load horses and climb around near them in the gate. The program is also known for using long gallops in large sets that get a young horse used to working in company, and for emphasizing fitness over speed.

"We don't do a lot of fast breezing," Carroll said. "We put a lot of bottom in the horses, a lot of long, nice gallops. You can do a lot of good, mentally and physically, by letting horses two-minute lick. If you hang them on the inside rail and let them rattle, when it comes time to ship to Chicago, all you'll have is a horse that's speed-minded and all he wants to do is run, run, run. It's not our job to see who's fastest. You've got to hold them together, keep them sound, and educate them."

In the next 90 days of gentle jogging and galloping at the center's track, War Emblem began to show Carroll's team the first signs of his talent.

"When you first take them out to the racetrack, they're uncoordinated and kind of don't know how to go, but they come to themselves," said Carroll's assistant, Johnny Browning Jr. "The longer they gallop and work, the nice ones come to the top. He had a nice way of going, kind of gliding across the ground with not a lot of wasted action. And after we got him going, we thought he had some ability."

"He was a normal, nice, good-feeling colt," Carroll said. "He would always give you his best, but you would have the watch him, because he was smart and you might have to keep him focused."

Early that spring, Carroll, Browning, and a vet examined X-rays of their newly turned 2-year-olds, looking for signs that the horses' knee joints had matured, that the normal open spaces between bones in the joint had closed firmly and were ready for the stress of faster work. War Emblem's knee joints passed the exam, and he headed out for his first breeze soon afterward. He did not, Carroll said, have the ankle chips that would later play a role in Reineman's decision to sell a 90 percent interest to Prince Ahmed Salman, and which caused at least one buyer before Salman to pass on the horse after his Illinois Derby win.

Carroll downplays any suggestion that the colt was difficult, but people who talked with him at the time remember Carroll telling them that, as training progressed, War Emblem was getting stronger and more challenging.

"I think after they started throwing someone on his back and asking him to go around the track, his manliness started coming out," recalled Charles "Nucks" Nuckols III, son of War Emblem's breeder. "He was getting on the muscle, and he was tough on the track."

Carroll and the farm's corps of riders, who each rode War Emblem in turn, responded, Nuckols suggested, by patiently keeping the colt at his lessons.

"That kind of horse will test you," Nuckols said. "War Emblem might have been tough, but he didn't bluff anybody at Webb's place."

Carroll and Browning say there wasn't a single, decisive moment in War Emblem's training that convinced them he was special. His short breezes revealed that he had speed, and he appeared to be smart. When Carroll sent him out in large sets of horses designed to simulate training and racing conditions at the racetrack, War Emblem took the new situations in stride. Gradually, as he learned more about standing patiently in the gate and galloping behind horses who kicked dirt in his face, as he sharpened his speed in brief workouts, War Emblem began to pull his skills together and look like a professional racehorse.

"It's like we say in the South when you're cooking hush puppies in a pan of grease," Carroll said. "When one floats to the top, that one's ready to take out of the grease. When one of these horses comes to the top, that's when you say, 'This horse has got a little ability.' And you look for them to do it on their own, naturally, without whipping and driving. They just separate themselves from the others."

War Emblem left the training center on June 1 with six other horses who were headed to Springer's barn in Chicago.

War Emblem immediately raised eyebrows on Springer's barn, for both his talent and his rambunctiousness, which seemed to grow every day he was at the track.

Carroll vividly recalls Springer telling him one month after War Emblem's arrival in Chicago, far sooner than with most young horses, "Webb, this horse can run."

"But the more he became a racehorse, the more rambunctious and frisky he got," Carroll recalled Springer telling him. "Springer is a good horseman, and he did a heck of a good job working with this horse. The colt was a tough hombre. The sharper he got, the more of a handful he became, and everybody had to stay glued on: the jock, the pony boy, everybody. They had to watch him. He was a real racehorse."

"Sometimes that's what makes a racehorse," Browning added.

That aggression might have wrecked War Emblem's chances to become a Triple Crown horse months earlier, if the colt's attitude and predilection for burning speed hadn't been channeled.

"If this particular horse had been hammered on and drilled around the track, well, you can imagine," Carroll said. "He probably wouldn't be what he is today."

The payoff for Carroll and his team isn't financial - they have no claim to War Emblem's purse money or the $1 million bonus the colt earned for his Illinois Derby-Kentucky Derby double. It's a matter of pride in their horsemanship and the teamwork between the training center and War Emblem's trainers, first Springer and now Bob Baffert, who built on the foundation Carroll's program laid.

"Those are thrills you can never get over," Carroll said of War Emblem's Triple Crown trip.

Carroll got his start in the business nearly a half-century ago when he and his brother, trainer Henry Carroll, galloped horses at their father William Carroll's training center in St. Matthews. Webb Carroll has taken some detours since then, including time as a truck driver and a farmer, but he never got too far from St. Matthews or the racehorse business.

There was one close call, five years ago, when Carroll was nearly dragged to death by a Belgian draft horse. Carroll had been driving the horse when the animal spooked and bolted. Carroll saw no choice but to bail out of the wagon, but his legs became tangled in the long nylon reins. When the horse finally stopped, Carroll was lucky to be alive, but both his legs were badly broken.

Lying in the hospital, Carroll thought it might be time to get a new occupation. But he was 52, recently divorced with two young children - Hallie, now 12, and Webb, now 11 - and it seemed best to keep going. So he did.

Not much gets by the residents in a town as small as St. Matthews, and people responded. Carroll's neighbors did what they could to help him get on his feet again; one of them, a schoolteacher named Sarah, married him, Carroll points out with a smile. Now he hopes the town will share in War Emblem's success.

When he visits his regular lunch spot at the Town and Country restaurant in downtown St. Matthews, the talkative man once voted "most popular" in the local high school gets plenty of handshakes and congratulations from his neighbors. They can't all tell you the date of the Belmont, but they know what it means to Carroll and his family: it means he's made it.

"He's a favorite son," said the owner of the local Texaco station. "We're proud of him."

"If it cost a quarter to go around the world, I still couldn't get out of sight of St. Matthews," said Carroll.

So, in the end, Carroll came back to the occupation that he was bred for, as an elementary school teacher for promising young Thoroughbreds. That decision caused Carroll's life to intersect with War Emblem's, and that made all the difference to both teacher and student.