05/06/2002 11:00PM

War Emblem bonus is sticky issue

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STICKNEY, Ill. - Three days after the Kentucky Derby, the payout of a $1 million bonus War Emblem earned by winning the Derby remains unsettled, with the colt's former owner continuing to claim entitlement to at least half the money.

Sportsman's Park offered the bonus to any horse that wins the Illinois Derby and any Triple Crown race. War Emblem did both, but Sportsman's may face a sticky decision about how the bonus will be paid.

After War Emblem's easy win April 6 in the Illinois Derby, owner Russell Reineman sold 90 percent of the colt to Prince Ahmen Salman's Thorough-bred Corp. for $900,000. Reineman said he bowed to the Thoroughbred Corp.'s wish to be listed as the colt's sole owner, but that the issue of the bonus was not discussed.

Monday, Reineman stepped forward and said he was entitled to at least 50 percent of the bonus. He said some in his family had urged him to claim the entire bonus, but that he would be satisfied with half.

Neither Sportsman's description of the bonus nor an insurance policy taken out on it by the track deals specifically with an ownership change between the Illinois Derby and a Triple Crown race.

Reineman's stance did not waver Tuesday, and he insisted that anything less than a $500,000 payment would be unacceptable and could prompt legal action. The 84-year-old Reineman, who owns a faltering steel business in Chicago, said he had spoken with his old friend, Stormy Bidwill, chairman of National Jockey Club which operates Sportsman's, who said company attorneys were looking into the matter.

Reineman also said he was telephoned Tuesday by Bob Baffert, who took over War Emblem's training upon his sale. The issue of the bonus came up, but only briefly, Reineman said, declining to offer further details. He and Baffert had a friendly discussion during which Baffert asked if Reineman needed seats at the Preakness Stakes.

Neither Baffert nor Richard Mulhall, racing manager for the Thoroughbred Corp., returned phone calls Monday or Tuesday.

The insurance policy's broker said Monday that a $1 million check will be paid to Sportsman's within 30 days. How Sportsman's distributes the bonus is in the hands of the track. Monday, Sportsman's officials said their attorney's preliminary reading of the bonus was that it "followed the horse," and thus would be divided along the lines of the colt's sale. But Tuesday, Charles Bidwill III, president of the NJC, said he hoped Reineman and the Thoroughbred Corp. could work out an agreement between themselves.

"I think that would be way to handle it," Bidwill said.