05/10/2002 12:00AM

Now comes War Emblem's real test

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NEW YORK - War Emblem is an admirably fast racehorse who has now run two straight races that are just plain quicker than any other 3-year-old in the land. What makes Saturday's Preakness so interesting is that he will be put to a different test. We will find out whether, in addition to speed and quality, he has the courage and resilience of a genuine champion.

What will make the race a crucible is the near certainty that War Emblem will be challenged early this time. Whether it's Booklet or some unexpected late entrant, someone is going to try to deny War Emblem the easy leads he enjoyed en route to runaway victories in the Illinois and Kentucky derbies.

Some consider the deliberate sacrifice of an inferior front-runner to ensure an honest pace to be an odious tradition, but as often as not it serves the sport by providing the rabbit's target with an opportunity to amplify his reputation. Only two front-running 3-year-olds in the last 20 years have gone on to be the Horse of the Year, and both earned that honor largely because of a triumph under similar circumstances to those War Emblem may face Saturday.

In 1985, Spend a Buck won the Derby from wire to wire when an expected duel with Eternal Prince never materialized and he was left alone on the lead. No one entirely trusted the result and there was plenty of speculation that a contested pace would have produced a worthier winner in Stephan's Odyssey, Chief's Crown, or Tank's Prospect.

Spend a Buck skipped the Preakness that year because a $2 million bonus awaited him if he could win the Jersey Derby at Garden State Park. Spend a Buck was 1-20 against what looked on paper like a substandard field. Had he gotten loose with a half in 48 seconds and cruised to victory, his critics would have said the race proved nothing.

Instead, Spend a Buck was attacked from the start by a 53-1 shot named Huddle Up, who pushed him through fractions of 22.80, 45.40, and 1:09. Spend a Buck was spent, and after a mile in 1:35, an unheralded gelding named Creme Fraiche had closed to within half a length and looked ready to swoop past him. Spend a Buck somehow dug down and fended off his challenger through an agonizing final quarter in 27.60 in a gutty performance that looked even better when Creme Fraiche went on to win the Belmont and two Jockey Club Gold Cups.

Nine years later, Holy Bull came into the Travers Stakes off loose victories in the Met Mile, Dwyer, and Haskell. Earlier in the year, in the Fountain of Youth, he had been pressed early and faded badly. That seemed possible again after a rabbit named Commanche Trail hounded him through a contested six furlongs in 1:10.40. But Holy Bull won the battle, opened some daylight and then grittily lasted by a neck over Concern, who two months later won the Breeders' Cup Classic.

This Jersey Derby and Travers were not Spend a Buck's or Holy Bull's fastest races, but their courage under fire are what earned them widespread respect and the sport's highest honor. War Emblem has a similar opportunity if he can overcome the bull's-eye on his back Saturday.

A not entirely trivial footnote: Both Huddle Up in the 1985 Jersey Derby and Commanche Trail in the 1994 Travers, were sent out by D. Wayne Lukas, who trains this year's Derby runner-up, Proud Citizen. History suggests Lukas will make sure there are no easy half-miles Saturday.

It's really a matter of math

Especially in these Enronic times, one shouldn't use the word "fraud" loosely. When I called the morning line for this year's Derby a "parimutuel fraud" in these pages, I did not mean to suggest that Churchill Downs or its linemaker, Mike Battaglia, were engaged in a willful scheme to mislead the betting public.

My point was that if taken literally - a 6-1 shot truly going off at 6.00-1 - the Derby morning line added up to an impossible 117 rather than 100 percent of the gross mutuel pool, when it should have added up to around 105 percent, allowing for that 6-1 shot going off at 6.50-to-1. According to Battaglia, I should have provided an even larger margin for rounding.

He says it has been his practice for 30 years to round odds down not just to the nearest whole number but to the next conventional price point. So his 6-1 morning-line horse could actually go off as high as 7.90-1 and still be correct because there is no traditional price point between 6 and 8. Similarly, a 12-1 shot in the line could go off anywhere from 12.00-1 to 14.90-1, and a 30-1 shot as high as 49.90-1 because morning lines conventionally use only 12, 15, 20, 30 and 50 as waypoints for longshots.

I don't personally like this method and would prefer lines to be plausible on their face, but the math works if you proceed this way and use the midpoints for these wider ranges - changing, for example every 6-1 shot to 7.00-1 and making the 15-1 shots 17.50-1. Horseplayers using the morning line while hunting for value should make the appropriate adjustments in the future.