08/29/2002 11:00PM

War Emblem may yet show he's among best


PHOENIX - They're jumping off the War Emblem bandwagon faster than you can say Came Home. The one-time golden boy of this 3-year-old crop is now being assailed as a fraud, as a horse who has to have things his way.

All this transpired in the two minutes it took to run last Sunday's Grade 1 Pacific Classic, which saw War Emblem finish sixth in his first try versus elders, and finish well behind fellow 3-year-old Came Home, who won so impressively. Just a couple weeks after they nodded knowingly and said, "He's back" after War Emblem's big Haskell win, many are now pooh-poohing his chances unless he's left to his own devices up front.

Okay, so he's not Seattle Slew. He's not even Sunday Silence. And there is some truth to the knock that he flourishes only when things go his way.

But circumstances were so against him in the Pacific Classic that his loss needs to be dealt with more fairly, and not cited as evidence that his Derby and Preakness wins weren't that great. Other big 3-year-olds have lost to top elders, including Secretariat, Affirmed, and Spectacular Bid.

The Pacific Classic set up against War Emblem. Bosque Redondo, Came Home's stablemate, was entered for the singular purpose of dogging War Emblem. Sky Jack was another speed horse entered in the Pacific Classic, but he was entered with the intention of winning. Bosque Redondo wasn't there to win the race - he was there to ensure War Emblem did not. Sadly, Bosque Redondo broke down right after the finish.

So even had War Emblem left the gate alertly he would have been in trouble. But when the gates opened War Emblem wasn't ready. He was fractious loading and broke a step slowly, so Bosque Redondo and Sky Jack were already a length clear of him before they had gone three strides.

Jockey Victor Espinoza had no choice but to settle War Emblem off the pace. Still, he was close to a horrific pace (45.48, 1:09.82, and on the lead after a mile in 1:35.47), one that had to set things up for off-the-pace runners - such as top-four finishers Came Home, Momentum, Milwaukee Brew, and Pleasantly Perfect.

War Emblem is not yet a great horse. Great horses overcome. But, even Cigar got cooked in the Pacific Classic. War Emblem has shown resolve: He didn't make the front early in the Preakness, was tugging hard and finally pulled his way to the lead, and still managed to win.

In the Pacific Classic, he didn't pull as hard on Espinoza as he had in the Preakness and Belmont. Was he too relaxed? This is reminiscent of J.O. Tobin in the late 1970's. He was a speed freak who beat Seattle Slew in the Swaps at 3, but as a 4-year-old he became more relaxed - or maybe it's more accurate to say he was forced to relax. What that did was seemingly make him less effective going long against top-class horses. He still won an Eclipse Award as champion sprinter in 1978, but had J.O. Tobin just been allowed to roll, maybe he would have made more of an impact in the longer handicap races.

Could it be the same with War Emblem? Espinoza said he wanted to be on the lead, but that the slow start killed those plans, so hopefully there is no intent to choke down War Emblem.

The future? It's still bright - real bright. In fact, it wouldn't shock me if War Emblem came back and won the Breeders' Cup Classic. How, you ask? Well, there is certainly not going to be as much speed entered in the B.C. Classic as there was in this Pacific Classic. Sky Jack would have to be supplemented, and word from his camp is that it's not going to happen, not with the lucrative Cal Cup as an option. Bosque Redondo is hurt. Left Bank had surgery and is done. The only other top router with this kind of speed is Congaree, and he isn't being pointed to the B.C. Classic. Besides, he's in the same barn as War Emblem so you needn't worry about him getting in War Emblem's way.

Facing the likes of Street Cry, Milwaukee Brew, Repent, and Momentum, War Emblem may be able to get the lead on cruise control, a la the Kentucky Derby. Came Home and Medaglia d'Oro won't be far away, but they won't be asked to go 1:09 and change up front like Sky Jack and Bosque Redondo were. That means War Emblem may very well get the trip he so desires. And as we've seen, it's under such situations that War Emblem goes from gasping to great.