05/21/2002 11:00PM

It's hard to knock him now

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PHILADELPHIA - A few weeks before the Kentucky Derby, somebody asked John Ward if he thought there was any chance we could have a Triple Crown winner this year. The obvious answer was no, since none of the 3-year-olds had really distinguished themselves.

The right answer was Ward's. "Why not?," he said.

Without any great horses in the bunch, this might be the perfect year for a Triple Crown winner.

War Emblem may or may not be a great horse. Time and times will tell us that. But he is clearly the best of this bunch.

War Emblem has only a few problems as he tries to become the 12th Triple Crown winner.

The big colt is now an "everybody'' horse. That's rarely good under any circumstance. That's especially a bad sign because he was a "nobody'' horse three weeks ago.

It's also a little disconcerting that trainer Bob Baffert has gone from understated to overconfident. Still, who can blame him?

Anybody who watched the Preakness has to think War Emblem is going to win the Belmont Stakes. Only those who misunderstood the finish might look elsewhere.

Magic Weisner seemed to be closing fast, but that was a bit of an illusion. War Emblem, after all his battles, was slowing down. What happened after the wire was as important as what happened before it. Once War Emblem caught a glimpse of Magic Weisner, he pulled away again. He won the gallop out to the clubhouse turn by a few lengths. Anybody who thinks the Preakness winner was a tired horse at the finish simply was not paying close enough attention.

No 3-year-old gets Beyers of 112, 114, and 109 in April and May without being very talented. No horse fights off all the challenges War Emblem did without being top class.

Any horse with speed and courage is a major threat to win the Belmont. War Emblem obviously qualifies on both counts.

What many missed after the Derby was this. Since Winning Colors wired the 1988 Derby, the early leader in the Derby had finished 13th, 16th, 15th, 14th, third, 18th, 16th, 14th, 16th, 17th, eighth, 15th, and eighth. Until War Emblem went all the way.

Any horse who can run through that history and then show an entirely different dimension two weeks later clearly is serious.

Remember all those other "speed'' horses in the Preakness. Other than Menacing Dennis, War Emblem made them all look slow by comparison. That is not to be overlooked.

Wayne Lukas was complaining of traffic problems after the Preakness, saying his two horses (Table Limit and Proud Citizen) were caught wide on the first turn. Well, whose fault was that? Lukas chose outside post positions. He got what he asked for.

Baffert is so sharp right now that he chose post 8 knowing that the other trainers with speed horses would choose to stay outside of War Emblem. They all fell right into the trap.

Under the circumstances, Proud Citizen ran a terrific race. He made a terrific run at War Emblem in the stretch. Would an easier trip for Proud Citizen around the first turn have changed the outcome? I doubt it. War Emblem has had the lead in the stretch six times. He is 6 for 6.

As the Belmont approaches, some will focus on War Emblem's early career. Forget that. It's irrelevant. He has now decisively beaten the horses who finished in front of him in his first life.

In this life, War Emblem has been dominant, winning his three races prior to the Preakness by a combined 21 lengths without ever being behind a horse. His Preakness was dominant in another way. Now, all War Emblem has to do is overcome the fact that for the first time in his life, he looks obvious.