Updated on 09/16/2011 8:32AM

Historical trends are in War Emblem's favor


ELMONT, N.Y - In theory, at least, War Emblem's bid to win the Belmont Stakes and sweep the Triple Crown should not be so difficult. He merely needs to maintain the outstanding form he displayed in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Most of his main rivals are colts he has already defeated in the first two legs of the series.

However, the same arguments could have been made for the seven other colts since 1979 who captured the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and were favored to win the Belmont. All of them were champions and three were eventually enshrined in the Racing Hall of Fame. Yet they all failed in the Belmont Stakes, adding to the mystique of the Triple Crown. Why is the last leg of this series so difficult to win? And what does its history augur for War Emblem on Saturday?

Of course, a clichŽ of the sport says that there are a thousand ways to lose a race, and these thousand potential scenarios can affect the Belmont Stakes as readily and unpredictably as any ordinary event. Yet after witnessing all of the Triple Crown bids for more than three decades, I believe that the majority of these high-profile failures fit into definable, predictable categories.

Seldom is the Belmont decided by racing luck. Rarely have injuries or infirmities spoiled a horse's Triple Crown bid. (Tim Tam in 1958 and Majestic Prince in 1969 were among the exceptions.)

The crucial factor in the Belmont is that its 1 1/2-mile distance gives it a character different from the Derby and Preakness. The difference is a matter of running style rather than stamina.

The Derby and Preakness are frequently won by a horse who seizes command with one decisive move - most often an acceleration on the final turn that amounts to a swift knockout punch. Eleven of the last 17 Derby winners ran this way, passing five or more rivals between the six-furlong mark to the top of the stretch: Monarchos (2001), Fusaichi Pegasus (2000), Charismatic, (1999), Real Quiet (1998), Grindstone (1996), Sea Hero (1993), Lil E. Tee (1992), Strike the Gold (1991), Unbridled (1990), Alysheba (1987), and Ferdinand (1986). Not a single one of them won the Belmont Stakes.

The lessons of history seem clear: A horse may take command with one swift move at Churchill Downs or Pimlico. But if he tries to do it on the 1 1/2-mile Belmont oval, he still has a long stretch in front of him and has to run literally into the next county. Horses can win the Belmont Stakes with almost any other style. Plodders can win it and speed horses can win it - indeed, the last four Triple Crown winners all scored front-running victories here. But the secret is to employ a measured style rather than an explosive one.

The importance of conserving a horse's energy places a special burden on jockeys, and those who move prematurely can earn an ignominious place in Belmont history. Real Quiet had the wrong style for the Belmont - he had won the Derby and Preakness with big moves on the turn - but Kent Desormeaux may have been too aggressive when he surged to a four-length lead turning into the stretch and lost in the final stride. Ron Franklin's panicky, premature move cost Spectacular Bid the Triple Crown in 1979. Chris Antley delivered a questionable ride aboard Charismatic.

Of the seven horses who have failed to complete a Triple Crown sweep since Affirmed accomplished the feat in 1978, five either had the wrong style for the Belmont or were the victim of a premature move: Spectacular Bid, Pleasant Colony, Alysheba, Real Quiet, and Charismatic. The other two suffered a more mundane fate: Each ran an excellent race but lost to a rival who ran better.

Both Sunday Silence (1989) and Silver Charm (1997) would have been worthy Triple Crown winners. They were great athletes and versatile runners with styles well suited to the Belmont. But Sunday Silence was the contemporary of another great Thoroughbred, Easy Goer, who ran the race of his life over his home track in the Belmont. Silver Charm had a formidable adversary in Touch Gold, who might have won the Preakness with better racing luck and did eke out a narrow decision in the final leg of the Triple Crown.

What do the lessons of the past bode for War Emblem on Saturday? He doesn't make the big, bold move on the turn that has hindered so many other Triple Crown aspirants. Indeed, he is the first habitual front-runner who has sought the Crown since Affirmed captured it in 1978. If jockey Victor Espinoza can dole out the colt's speed as efficiently as he did in the Derby, War Emblem could have an ideal running style for Belmont. (Of course, his rivals are likely to be less accommodating than they were at Churchill Downs.)

War Emblem's victories in the first two legs of the Triple Crown were dominating performances, and he does not have to face a mighty adversary Saturday. Some handicappers can still make a rational case for his main rival, Proud Citizen, or the fresh challenger Sunday Break, but neither one of these colts is an Easy Goer or a Touch Gold.

War Emblem is not in the class of a Secretariat or a Citation, and he won't have a comfortable margin for error in the Belmont. But he has superior talent, no intimidating challengers and - most important - an effective running style if Espinoza rides a smart race. With historical precedents on his side, War Emblem can make history and become America's 12th Triple Crown winner.

(c) 2002 The Washington Post