05/04/2002 12:00AM

Last-minute shopping gets Baffert, Salman their winner


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - A Kentucky Derby week that included a hint of controversy for trainer Bob Baffert ended in triumph on Saturday.

Baffert scored his third career victory in the Kentucky Derby when the front-running War Emblem pulled away in the final furlong to win by four lengths at 20-1. Owned by Ahmed Salman's Thoroughbred Corp., War Emblem joins Silver Charm (1997) and Real Quiet (1998) as Baffert-trained winners of the Derby.

Despite War Emblem's status as a longshot, Baffert was in the news throughout the week. When entries were drawn on Wednesday, Baffert surprised the racing world by entering Danthebluegrassman, who had finished last in the Santa Anita Derby on April 6. His late presence in the entries kept Windward Passage out of the race, since the Derby is limited to 20 starters.

On Saturday morning, Baffert announced that Danthebluegrassman was scratched after tying up.

A leading trainer in Southern California, Baffert, 49, has made the Kentucky Derby a yearlong goal. For much of the spring, this did not seem to be his year. Many of his hopefuls went by the wayside, suffering injuries or proving unworthy of a Kentucky Derby start.

Baffert jumped back into the Derby scene when Salman, of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, bought War Emblem following the colt's win in the Illinois Derby by 6 1/4 lengths at Sportsman's Park on April 6.

Salman started the favorite in the 2001 Kentucky Derby in Point Given, who suffered his only loss of that season in the Kentucky Derby. Point Given was later named Horse of the Year.

"We came in here through the back door," Baffert said of the late purchase, "but we're going out through the front door. I told the Prince, 'I owe you a Derby after last year.' He's got it."

Baffert paid credit to Frank Springer, the previous trainer of War Emblem.

"He told me everything about the horse," Baffert said. "He really helped me get to know this horse in a hurry. He played a big part. We worked with the horse and I only changed a few times. Everything went so great without a hitch."

With the late purchase of War Emblem, Baffert was back on the Derby scene, and eventually into the winner's circle for the third time.