01/28/2003 12:00AM

For War Emblem, a Hollywood ending

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The tumultuous 2002 season for War Emblem ended on a high note Monday night in Beverly Hills, Calif., with his selection as champion 3-year-old colt.

War Emblem's story line seemed preposterous, even for some of the soap operas produced in the town where he claimed his award. He was purchased by new owners just three weeks before the Kentucky Derby, which he won as a 20-1 longshot. Two weeks later, he added the Preakness Stakes. He stumbled badly at the start of the Belmont Stakes, losing his chance to become the 12th Triple Crown winner and the first since Affirmed in 1978. His owner, Prince Ahmed bin Salman, died of a heart attack in July. He was syndicated at year's end and was sent to stud duty in Japan upon his retirement. Russell Reineman, who sold War Emblem following his victory in the Illinois Derby, and the heirs of Prince Ahmed, who raced as The Thoroughbred Corporation, squabbled over the distribution of a $1 million bonus earned for sweeping the Illinois Derby and Kentucky Derby.

War Emblem, a son of Our Emblem bred by Charles Nuckols Jr. and Sons, was mercurial. He used his blazing early speed to control the Illinois Derby, Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Haskell Invitational, but he faltered badly when hooked in the Pacific Classic and Breeders' Cup Classic. He won half of his 10 starts, and shined brightest on two of racing's biggest days.

Frank "Bobby" Springer trained War Emblem for his first seven starts, including his first four in 2002. Bob Baffert took over following the sale in mid-April. It was Baffert and Richard Mulhall, the racing manager for The Thoroughbred Corporation, who negotiated the deal for Prince Ahmed after flying to Lexington, Ky., to inspect War Emblem just days after the Illinois Derby. Beginning with the Kentucky Derby, Victor Espinoza was the regular rider for War Emblem.

Mulhall, who was associated with Prince Ahmed for two decades, had to pause while accepting War Emblem's trophy, overcome with emotion.

"I wish he was here accepting this award himself," Mulhall said of the prince.

Mulhall made a point to praise Baffert's top assistant, Jim Barnes, and Dana Barnes, Jim's wife and the stable's lead exercise rider, for their work with War Emblem.

"They got him to settle down," Mulhall said. "If not for them, I don't think he would have won the Derby."

War Emblem was the choice of all three organizations that vote on the Eclipse Awards - Daily Racing Form, the National Turf Writers Association, and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.

Medaglia d'Oro, who won the Travers Stakes and Jim Dandy Stakes and finished second in the Breeders' Cup Classic, was runner-up in the voting.