05/07/2002 11:00PM

Springer: Selling War Emblem 'right thing'


CHICAGO - Bobby Springer's hand is getting tired from answering his cell phone. "What's it like to sell the Kentucky Derby winner?" people want to know. "By the way, who are you?"

It wouldn't be fair if the questions got inextricably intertwined. The 55-year-old Springer has been training horses for more than 30 years. He's had some good ones before, and despite losing the best one he ever had, War Emblem, only three weeks before the colt won the Kentucky Derby, he feels confident other chances will come.

As for selling a Derby winner, Springer can live with it. "I still feel like we did the right thing," he said of himself and owner Russell Reineman, who took $900,000 from The Thoroughbred Corp. for 90 percent of War Emblem, a late-blooming colt Reineman helped breed and had owned up until the sale.

War Emblem probably wouldn't have gone to the Derby had Springer kept training him. War Emblem had just trounced Repent - then among the Derby favorites - in the Illinois Derby, and after the race, Springer and Reineman talked about trying the Preakness.

"I thought it would be easier on him" to skip the Derby, Springer said.

Springer wondered how the hot-blooded War Emblem would handle the stresses of the Derby. He worried about tactics. War Emblem's one attempt at rating had failed, and the colt would need the lead in the Derby.

These are the kinds of things Springer always frets over. Springer's greatest virtue? Patience, choosing races carefully, he said. The fretting, and the waiting, keeps his 15- to 30-horse stable winning at a high percentage in Chicago and New Orleans. Springer shies away from publicity and works hard - after training hours you can find him outside his barn, cleaning tack.

But when War Emblem was sold, patience went out the window. There would be no waiting, no wondering. The Thoroughbred Corp. had bought a Derby horse, and Bob Baffert would train him up to the race one way or another.

But with only three weeks, Baffert needed a rapid learning curve. There was no time to figure out War Emblem's quirks, no time to ease him into a new system. What Baffert needed was Springer, who had spent more than a year learning all he could about War Emblem.

"He called me every day," Springer said of Baffert. "The horse is a handful to mess around with. He's not easy to train. [Baffert] wanted to know things like how he galloped, things it took me a year to learn."

Said Baffert, "The horse can be tough. He lunges, he'll dart off with the pony. In the stall, he's pretty good, but he's known as a kicker. Things did go smooth. It was a good deal for both parties, and [Springer] really helped out."

Baffert said he plans to split with Springer his share of the $1 million bonus War Emblem earned for winning the Illinois Derby and the Kentucky Derby.

Springer said Baffert even called him the morning of the Derby. "Will he take any stick?" Baffert asked, wondering if jockey Victor Espinoza could use his whip on War Emblem. "I said, 'Yeah, he'll take some stick. Tell the jock to sit on him, just wait until turning for home,' " Springer said.

Espinoza waited, then rode, and War Emblem won. Now, deep down, Springer, through the buzz of phone calls, is himself left to wait and wonder: Will I ever get another one like this?

Bonus settlement coming

A disagreement between the former and current owner of War Emblem over the distribution of a $1 million bonus the colt earned for sweeping the Illinois Derby and Kentucky Derby is nearing a resolution, according to an attorney representing current owner Ahmed Salman's The Thoroughbred Corp.

Los Angeles attorney Neil Papiano said Wednesday that the issue "will be resolved amicably."

Former owner Reineman sold 90 percent of War Emblem to Salman after the Illinois Derby at Sportsman's Park on April 6. War Emblem was then turned over to Baffert. Since the Kentucky Derby, Reineman has stated that he is entitled to 50 percent of the bonus. The bonus is to be paid by Sportsman's Park.

Papiano said Salman is not obligated to pay Reineman.

"It's absolutely clear that the bonus goes with the horse," Papiano said. "I don't think there is any doubt about that. I think some arrangement will be made for everyone, nonetheless.

"From a legal standpoint, you sell all the rights, titles, and interest with it - good or bad. If the horse has gone bad, the Prince and Bob couldn't say we want to give it back."

- additional reporting by Steve Andersen