Updated on 09/16/2011 7:34AM

There's no stumbling into the elite


ELMONT, N.Y. - Don't cry for War Emblem.

America's star 3-year-old Thoroughbred was unlucky to stumble at the start of the Belmont Stakes before suffering the defeat that cost him the Triple Crown.

But the idea is wildly exaggerated that this misstep caused his loss to the 70-1 Sarava, and that War Emblem missed making history because of a split-second fluke. On one of the most memorable days of racing ever presented in New York, War Emblem simply wasn't good enough to take his place among the sport's immortals.

To people who watch races day after day, seeing a horse stumble at the start is hardly an unusual event. Occasionally a misstep can doom a horse. Earlier this winter, the long-range Kentucky Derby favorite Siphonic went to his knees in a stakes at Santa Anita, found himself more than five lengths behind the next-to-last horse and never got into serious contention. That's a disastrous stumble.

War Emblem's jockey, Victor Espinoza, said that when the gate opened for the 134th Belmont, his colt "almost fell down . . . I was lucky to stay on."

The poor start was especially harmful to a horse who is a front-runner by nature. The black colt was not going to find himself with a cozy lead as he did in the Kentucky Derby. But War Emblem had not been eliminated. Far from it. Espinoza coolly guided the colt toward the rail and to sit in fourth place behind Wiseman's Ferry and the other leaders. Trainer Bob Baffert had been trying for weeks to teach his colt to relax, and War Emblem (by his usual standards) seemed fairly relaxed. The colt was in position to win the Belmont if he was good enough.

Espinoza secured a ground-saving trip on the turn and the backstretch, and he moved inside the tiring leader approaching the final turn. But as he started to vie with Medaglia d'Oro for the lead, he abruptly ran out of gas. If War Emblem had wound up losing by two or three lengths to Sarava, racing fans might look back on this race - as they do, for example, on Native Dancer's trouble-filled 1953 Kentucky Derby - and say bad luck cost him a Triple Crown. But after War Emblem lost by nearly 20 lengths, it is difficult to argue that way.

War Emblem didn't deserve to affix his name to the most elite list in the sport. The test of greatness in a Thoroughbred is not his ability to run well when everything goes right; it is the ability to overcome adversity. The great ones do it. Seattle Slew was as much a one-dimensional speed horse as War Emblem, and he almost lost his rider at the start of the 1977 Kentucky Derby, but the Daily Racing Form's Joe Hirsch wrote that he bulled forward "like an equine Bronco Nagurski" to seize the lead and race his way into the sport's history. Secretariat was famous as a stretch-runner, but in the 1973 Belmont he found himself battling head-and-head in one of history's most famous speed duels - and he prevailed.

The events at Belmont on Saturday underscored why the Triple Crown remains such an elusive prize. To run three grueling races in a five-week period is a demanding challenge that takes a toll on the toughest of Thoroughbreds. (Ken McPeek, trainer of Sarava, speculated that War Emblem might have been on the downgrade before the Belmont.)

The three races pose different tactical challenges that test a horse's versatility. For these and many other reasons, no horse has swept the series since the great Affirmed in 1978.

The sentiment is expressed every year that the emergence of a Triple Crown winner would be good for the sport. After Seattle Slew, the last living winner of the title, died this spring, people in and out of the sport hungered for the appearance of a new hero.

But a new racing hero should be a legitimate one. If Real Quiet and Charismatic - neither of them a superstar - had captured the Triple Crown in 1998 and 1999, racing's biggest prize would have seemed less special. And if War Emblem had benefited from an alert start and led all the way to defeat a nonentity such as Sarava, a Triple Crown triumph might not have seemed so special, either.

This is not a criticism of War Emblem. He is a colt with the type of raw speed that excites all racing fans, and the Preakness victory was one of the most impressive performances in a Triple Crown race in years. But he isn't good enough to append his name to a short list that includes Count Fleet, Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed.

(c) 2002, The Washington Post