05/05/2002 11:00PM

An opportunity not missed


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Over the years, we have come to see racing as a sport of considerable balance.

Bob Baffert lost two heartbreaking Kentucky Derbies with Cavonnier and Point Given. Cavonnier lost by a nose to Grindstone in 1996 and Point Given was probably not at his best last year, as subsequently indicated by his Preakness and Belmont form.

Baffert had a Derby break coming to him and cashed it in Saturday with War Emblem. Permitted to set his own pace on the lead, Victor Espinoza made the most of the opportunity and carried the day. Wayne Lukas showed what could be done with the lead in the Derby in 1988 when Winning Colors led all the way to beat the colts. Lukas predicted no one would sacrifice his own chances to press the filly and he was right.

When War Emblem got off to a lively start in the 128th Kentucky Derby, the die was cast. Had Buddha, with the speed he displayed in winning the Wood Memorial, not been forced to scratch from the Derby, it might have been a different story. But that is speculation. The facts are that War Emblem made his own luck and raced 1 1/4 miles in a sprightly 2:01.13 to get it done.

Prince Ahmed bin Salman is to be hailed for his initiative in acquiring War Emblem, even at a late hour. The Prince holds the Kentucky Derby in high regard and wants to be involved. He has the means to support his interest but this is no guarantee of success, as others have demonstrated in the past.

Some aspects of Derby 128 bear reflection. One has to do with a raid by overseas horses which fell flat. It doesn't seem likely that horses with no more preparation than credited to this year's raiders will ever be factors in a Kentucky Derby. England's Clive Brittain showed the way in 1986 when he brought Bold Arrangement over for Keeeneland's Blue Grass Stakes, and Bold Arrangement built on that valuable preparation and experience to finish second to Ferdinand when they ran for the roses.

One of the keenest disappointments of the weekend was Saarland, the choice of many observers because of his credentials for stamina. He trained up to the Derby beautifully but came out of the race with an ankle chip that will be removed surgically and is expected to keep him sidelined until fall. We could see him in the handicap ranks next season, for his people feel his future is in front of him.

It was a weekend of surprises at Churchill Downs. Preceding War Emblem's $43 mutuel in the Kentucky Derby was Farda Amiga's $42 mutuel in Friday's Kentucky Oaks.

She did it her way, coming from far back in a field of nine while favored Take Charge Lady looked strong on the lead. But when Farda Amiga (by Broad Brush) drew abreast at the sixteenth pole, Take Charge Lady was out of ammunition.

The versatile Farda Amiga, who has run well on grass and dirt, was splendidly ridden by Chris McCarron. He was patient when patience was appropriate and was focused in the drive to seal a well-earned victory.

Farda Amiga appears to be long on stamina, and it will be interesting to follow her fortunes as she makes her way toward the distaff prize of prizes, the Coaching Club American Oaks.