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Updated on 09/16/2011 8:25AM
Lining up for another go
War Emblem might have gotten away with an easy trip in the Kentucky Derby, but he was the main target in a shooting gallery in the Preakness Stakes, and it appears a number of horses will take one last shot at him on June 8 in the Belmont Stakes when he attempts to become the sport's 12th Triple Crown winner.
Proud Citizen, who finished second in the Derby and third after a wide trip in the Preakness, is among more than a dozen 3-year-olds still being considered at this early stage for the Belmont. Another prominent Belmont prospect is Perfect Drift, who finished third in the Derby, then bypassed the Preakness to point for the Belmont. Perfect Drift worked five furlongs in 1:00.40 on Saturday morning at the Trackside training center in Louisville, Ky.
Essence of Dubai, who finished ninth in the Derby, also is pointing to the Belmont after skipping the Preakness.
Several contenders could emerge from Saturday's Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park, which includes such well-regarded runners as Fast Decision, Puzzlement, and Sunday Break. Neil Drysdale, who trains Sunday Break, won both the Peter Pan and Belmont in 1992 with A.P. Indy.
Other potential Belmont starters include Magic Weisner, the longshot who finished second in the Preakness; Medaglia d'Oro, who finished eighth in the Preakness as the second choice; Sarava, who captured the Sir Barton Stakes on the Preakness undercard; and the one-two finishers from the recent Lone Star Derby, Wiseman's Ferry and Tracemark.
Possible starters include One Tuff Fox and Table Limit, as well as the Canadian-based Tails of the Crypt, who finished second in Saturday's Marine Stakes at Woodbine. The status of both Azillion and Like a Hero depends on their performances in Thursday's Alydar Stakes at Hollywood Park.
The field is certain to be smaller by the time entries are taken on June 6, as a number of those on the fence figure to drop out. Still, the potentially large field shows that while respect for War Emblem has increased, he is not perceived as invincible.
To Bob Baffert, however, War Emblem has proven "he's pretty awesome."
"There's not a 3-year-old out there who can beat him," said Baffert, War Emblem's trainer. "The only way they can touch him is if he goes backwards on me. As long as he stays healthy and at this level, I'm probably more confident about this Triple Crown than any."
Baffert has been in this position twice before. First in 1997 with Silver Charm and then in 1998 with Real Quiet, he won both the Derby and Preakness. But both Silver Charm and Real Quiet lost narrowly in the Belmont, each finishing second in a bid to sweep the Triple Crown.
"I'm glad I've got another shot," Baffert said. "The third time's the charm."
No horse has won the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978. In the 24 years since then, eight horses have won the Derby and Preakness. But none of the previous seven - Spectacular Bid, Pleasant Colony, Alysheba, Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, Real Quiet, and Charismatic - could capture the Belmont, too. Point Given also won two-thirds of the Triple Crown, but he failed as the favorite in the Derby before taking the Preakness and Belmont. Other horses who since 1978 have won two-thirds of the Triple Crown are Swale and Thunder Gulch, who won the Derby and Belmont, and Risen Star, Hansel, and Tabasco Cat, who won the Preakness and Belmont after losing the Derby.
Baffert called the Belmont's 1 1/2 miles a "piece of cake." If War Emblem wins the Belmont, he also will earn a $5 million bonus from Visa, which sponsors the Triple Crown.
War Emblem got a Beyer Speed Figure of 109 in the Preakness. He got a 114 in the Kentucky Derby and a 112 in the Illinois Derby.
War Emblem flew back to Kentucky on Sunday afternoon. He will train at Churchill Downs until just three days before the Belmont, mirroring the schedule he had heading into the Preakness, as well as that of Baffert's previous Belmont runners. Baffert won last year's Belmont with Point Given.
Proud Citizen also returned to Churchill Downs with trainer D. Wayne Lukas.
Baffert said that in taking over the training of War Emblem in recent weeks, "I feel like Phil Jackson taking over the Lakers.
"Last year, I brought Shaquille O'Neal to the Belmont," Baffert said, referring to the massive Point Given. "This year, I've got Kobe Bryant."
Point Given and War Emblem have given Baffert and Prince Ahmed Salman's The Thoroughbred Corporation four consecutive victories in Triple Crown races. The Thoroughbred Corp. owns 90 percent of War Emblem. Russell Reineman, who sold War Emblem to Salman after the Illinois Derby, still owns 10 percent.
Baffert said War Emblem came out of the Preakness better than he did the Derby, even though the Preakness appeared to be the more physically demanding race because of the sharper early pace.
"He's pretty wild today," Baffert said on Sunday morning at Pimlico. "After the Derby, he was quiet and tired. Today, he's pretty rambunctious."
The Preakness was a much different race than the Derby. There was a hotter early pace, and several horses made runs at War Emblem, but he turned them all back, and galloped out better than anyone.
"When he saw another horse, he started taking off again," Baffert said.
"He didn't steal the Derby. He's just faster," Baffert added. "He's got a lot of gears."
Although the Derby result at first was considered inscrutable, the Preakness showed that the Derby was, indeed, a showcase for the division's best. War Emblem and Proud Citizen, the one-two finishers in the Derby, both ran excellent races in the Preakness despite more difficult circumstances in terms of pace and trip.
"I'm glad Menacing Dennis cleared us pretty quick," Baffert said of the Preakness pacesetter. "It was good schooling for him to let another horse go out there and cruise.
"This horse just needed distance. He's getting better, and he's learning to relax."
SEEKING THE CROWN
1978AffirmedS. CauthenLaz Barrera1stheadAffirmed
1979Spectacular BidR. FranklinG. Delp3rd3 1/2Coastal
1981Pleasant ColonyJ. VelasquezJ. Campo3rd1 3/4Summing
1987AlyshebaC. McCarronJ. Van Berg4th14 1/4Bet Twice
1989Sunday SilenceP. ValenzuelaC. Whittingham2nd8Easy Goer
1997Silver CharmG. StevensR. Baffert2nd3/4Touch Gold
1998Real QuietK. DesormeauxR. Baffert2ndnoseVictory Gallop
1999CharismaticC. AntleyD. W. Lukas3rd1 1/2Lemon Drop Kid