Updated on 09/16/2011 8:06AM

Pressure is on War Emblem


DEL MAR, Calif. - There will be no more easy spots for Kentucky Derby winner War Emblem. No more unchallenged leads against ordinary 3-year-olds.

The whole picture changes Sunday at Del Mar, where War Emblem meets older horses for the first time in his career in the $1 million Pacific Classic. At 1 1/4 miles, there is nowhere to hide. War Emblem will set the pace and encounter a fresh challenge at every turn.

Hollywood Gold Cup winner Sky Jack and the rabbit Bosque Redondo will be at War Emblem's throat early. The second wave of attackers includes Hollywood Gold Cup runner-up Momentum and Swaps winner Came Home. Finally, the closers - Santa Anita Handicap winner Milwaukee Brew and San Diego Handicap winner Grey Memo - launch from the back of the pack. The Pacific Classic is no easy race.

"He's not going to have an easy race from here on out," War Emblem's trainer, Bob Baffert, said. "I think he's really a great horse. We'll find out. If he is a great horse, he'll overcome it all."

War Emblem might require wings. With 14 entrants, the Pacific Classic field is the largest in the race's history. It goes as race 5 on a 10-race card at 2:42 p.m., and is the first leg of a pick 6 with a guaranteed $1 million pool. Despite a sizzling workout Tuesday that cast doubt on War Emblem's status, he looked strong galloping on Friday. Baffert said War Emblem will start. The question is, can he take the heat?

"It is going to be difficult, because he's not going to have [an easy lead] like the Haskell," Baffert said. "If he could rate just a little bit, he'd be awesome. But he doesn't rate. You can't rate him. He wants to pass every [horse] that gallops by."

It has been a successful strategy so far. War Emblem has won seven races and $3.4 million from 11 starts, and 3 of 4 since Baffert took over before Kentucky Derby and Preakness wins. Baffert said his instructions to jockey Victor Espinoza will be simple: "Don't get cute, just get him out of the gate. Once you get him out of the gate, let him roll, and whatever happens, happens. Don't worry about it."

War Emblem will have company. Bosque Redondo was entered as a rabbit for stablemate Came Home, and Sky Jack is the first serious speed threat to War Emblem. If War Emblem cannot take the heat, Sky Jack is the most likely winner.

A 6-year-old California-bred gelding, Sky Jack emerged as California's top handicap horse this summer by winning the Gold Cup and Mervyn LeRoy at Hollywood. The Pacific Classic was not in Sky Jack's original plans, but he came around quickly.

"He started doing so well once we got him down here," trainer Doug O'Neill said. "And when they're doing that well, with a million-dollar pot [you run]."

Sky Jack's front-running style poses an immediate dilemma because War Emblem runs the same way. O'Neill said Sky Jack's jockey, Laffit Pincay Jr., will not alter strategy.

"Our main goal is to try to get an easy lead," O'Neill said. "If it doesn't happen, we're going to go to Plan B."

The question for both Sky Jack and War Emblem is whether "Plan B" is a viable option. History is filled with examples of fast horses who become ineffective when unable to make the lead on their own. O'Neill has pondered how the race might unfold.

"If they both break running, and Laffit thinks they're going too fast, [Sky Jack] may sit just off [War Emblem]. The type of pace scenario like the Big Cap this year, we'd definitely have to sit off it early."

A fast pace would benefit Milwaukee Brew, whose trainer, Bobby Frankel, has won the Pacific Classic in 6 of its 11 runnings. Regarding pace, Frankel said: "I really don't think any of those horses can keep up with War Emblem. I want a swift pace, strung out."

Circumstances were made to order in March when Milwaukee Brew rallied from far back to win the Big Cap. He followed with a narrow win in the Californian in June at Hollywood, but in the Gold Cup, Milwaukee Brew fell too far off the pace and could only rally for third.

"You have to ask him all the time, you have to keep niggling at him," Frankel said.

He and jockey Kent Desormeaux have discussed strategy, and it will be Desormeaux's assignment to ascertain how far back to position Milwaukee Brew. Fall back too far, and lose contact. Race too close to the lead, and his stretch kick will be negated.

As for Momentum, he missed by only a nose to Sky Jack in the Hollywood Gold Cup, and trainer Craig Dollase said: "We're happy with our position. We're in good shape. We're quietly confident."


Purse: $1 million; 1 1/4 miles; Grade 1


1Jimmy ZP. Valenzuela12430-1

2MomentumG. Gomez12410-1

3Sky JackL. Pincay Jr.12410-1

4aBosque RedondoD. Flores1247-2

5Bonus PackJ. Castanon12430-1

6War EmblemV. Espinoza1176-5

7Pleasantly PerfectA. Solis12420-1

8fSpeedy PickB. Blanc12430-1

9aCame HomeM. Smith1177-2

10Milwaukee BrewK. Desormeaux1244-1

11SeinneT. Baze12430-1

12fNate's ColonyM. Pedroza12430-1

13Grey MemoE. Delahoussaye12412-1

14TapatioC. Nakatani12430-1

Odds by Michael Hammersly

a-coupled; f-mutuel field

Television: Sunday, 5-6 p.m. Eastern, ESPN

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