04/06/2002 1:00AM

Repent can't catch speedy War Emblem

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CICERO, Ill. - War Emblem galloped out to an easy lead and ran away from heavily favored Repent in the stretch, easily winning the Grade 2, $500,000 on a chilly Saturday at Sportsman's Park.

Repent, a top Kentucky Derby hopeful and a 1-2 favorite Saturday, made a bold move around the far turn but could gain no ground on War Emblem in the stretch. At the stretch call of the Illinois Derby, Repent trailed by five lengths; at the wire, he was behind by 6 1/4.

"I made up no ground from the top of the stretch, none," said Jerry Bailey, Repent's rider. "He finished, but not fast enough."

Not so for War Emblem, who ran faster in the final furlong than in the middle of the race under Larry Sterling, who rode War Emblem for the first time and scored the biggest win of his career. The colt's victory was a rousing triumph for the 84-year-old owner Russell Reineman, a suburban Chicagoan who has owned racehorses since 1950, and for trainer Frank "Bobby" Springer, who had War Emblem on top of his game at a very opportune moment.

Besides winning a $300,000 purse, War Emblem became eligible for a $1 million bonus if he wins any Triple Crown race.

That chance is more likely to come in the Preakness than the Kentucky Derby.

"You never say never," said Springer.

But neither Springer nor Reineman, who has twice run a horse in the Kentucky Derby, is eager to jump into the race with the developing War Emblem.

"I don't want to go if we're not going to have a good chance," Reineman said.

Meanwhile, Repent's trainer, Ken McPeek, seemed undeterred by the loss, and is likely to push on to the Kentucky Derby. "More than likely we're still going to run," McPeek said. "This colt is begging for a mile and a quarter."

War Emblem couldn't make a dent in 3-year-old stakes at Fair Grounds this winter, finishing sixth behind Repent in the Grade 3 Risen Star. But Springer abandoned efforts to get War Emblem to rate behind horses, and watched as War Emblem blossomed in recent weeks.

His task on an inside-speed favoring racetrack Saturday was made easier when One Tuff Fox, another speed horse, was scratched by the stewards in mid-afternoon for a violation of Illinois racing rules involving the administration of Lasix. In his absence, War Emblem was the only true speed in the race and made an easy lead under a long reign by Sterling.

Bailey, seeming to sense that the leader was getting away, put Repent into the race at about the half-mile pole, and Repent swooped past most of the field on the far turn. While no threat to the winner, he beat the third-place Fonz's by more than four lengths. War Emblem, who paid $14.60, was timed in 1:49.92 over a track that played slowly all afternoon.