05/31/2012 2:16PM

Triple Crown near-misses: War Emblem, 2002

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Barbara D. Livingston
War Emblem (middle) falls to his knees coming out of the gate in the 2002 Belmont. He finished eighth by 19 1/2 lengths.

War Emblem, a lightning quick colt, was about as subtle as a jackhammer. He brought one thing to the table − his intimidating early speed.

In that sense War Emblem was very much a throwback to trainer Bob Baffert’s days in the Quarter Horse game, when everything rode on the break. By the time Baffert got War Emblem in the spring of 2002, just after his sparkling score in the Illinois Derby, there was no time to tinker with his style. Doing his best impression of Spend a Buck, War Emblem led all the way to win the Derby, then came right back to press the pace in the Preakness and win again to set up Baffert’s third try at the Crown.

But when War Emblem went to his knees at the start of the Belmont, the game was over. Victor Espinoza recovered quickly enough to find a seam and guide the colt cleanly around the first turn, but their fate was sealed. After pulling hard behind a wall of horses on the backstretch, War Emblem slipped through inside and dallied on the pace for a furlong or so before giving way with three-eighths yet to run. He finished eighth; up ahead, victorious Sarava came through for the win at a record 70-1.

Ken McPeek, Sarava’s trainer, attempted to console those who saw the public relations opportunity of a Triple Crown hero slip away.

“The hype of having a chance to watch a Triple Crown winner is every bit as important as actually having it happen,” McPeek said. “If it happens, we still all go home today and everything calms down. They came to see history. They got to see it, didn’t they? They got to see a historically large crowd and they got to see a historic payoff.”

Triple Crown near-misses

Spectacular Bid (1979) Pleasant Colony (1981) Alysheba (1987) Sunday Silence (1989)
Silver Charm (1997) Real Quiet (1998) Charismatic (1999) War Emblem (2002)
Funny Cide (2003) Smarty Jones (2004) Big Brown (2008)