07/29/2002 12:00AM

War Emblem works quickly for a rejuvenated Haskell

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OCEANPORT, N.J. - On Friday, the field for Grade 1 Haskell Invitational at Monmouth was falling apart with three major defections and only three definite starters. But by Monday, the race had regained its luster as War Emblem put in his last workout and rejoined a prospective field that had swelled to six, with Mr. Mellon the latest addition.

War Emblem completed serious preparation for Sunday's Haskell by working five furlongs in 59.20 seconds with exercise rider Dana Barnes at Del Mar. The time tied the second fastest of 54 works at the distance Monday.

"He was very energetic," trainer Bob Baffert said. "Some horse broke off 10 in front of him, and he cruised by him. He galloped out real strong. He gallops out faster than he works."

Del Mar clockers had War Emblem galloping out in 1:11.20 for six furlongs and 1:24.40 for seven furlongs.

War Emblem is scheduled to be flown from his home base in California to New Jersey on Wednesday and will be joined by Baffert's top assistant, Jim Barnes.

Late Haskell addition Mr. Mellon is a stakes winner on dirt and turf, but after two turf starts he will return to dirt in the Haskell, trainer Elliott Walden said.

Mr. Mellon has not run on the dirt since finishing sixth as the 5-2 favorite in the Grade 2 Arkansas Derby April 13. Since that race, he has won the Grade 2 Arlington Classic on the turf June 29 in his last start and previously had run second to Orchard Park in the Grade 3 Jefferson Cup on the grass at Churchill Downs June 8.

Walden said from Saratoga that Mr. Mellon would ship to Monmouth on Thursday, and he named Pat Day to ride. Day rode Mr. Mellon in his first four starts but has not been on the colt since winning the $100,000 Rushaway Stakes at Turfway Park March 23. The Rushaway, and a maiden victory at Gulfstream Park Feb. 23, are Mr. Mellon's two maintrack wins in five starts there.

"[Owners] Winstar Farm and Tom Van Meter felt with the Haskell being a Grade 1, and the chance to take on War Emblem, it was a great opportunity for stallion prospects down the road," Walden said. "He's doing great, and we're looking forward to the Haskell."

Walden has had success in the Haskell, teaming with Day to win the 1999 edition with Menifee and running second the previous year with Victory Gallop.

A roller-coaster ride for the Haskell field began July 23, when Baffert withdrew War Emblem from the field after the death of the colt's owner, Prince Ahmed bin Salman. Also, Baffert said he was unhappy with the 124-pound highweight assigned to the colt. A day later, trainer Neil Drysdale withdrew Sunday Break from consideration because of an injury he reaggravated during training.

The Haskell was in dire straits after the defection of Swaps winner Came Home on Friday, leaving only three starters. But War Emblem's reversal along with two other new starters brought the race back to the forefront of the national 3-year-old division.

With Mr. Mellon's addition, the six-horse prospective field with jockeys is: War Emblem, Victor Espinoza; Long Branch Stakes winner Puck, Cornelio Velasquez; Preakness Stakes runner-up and Ohio Derby winner Magic Weisner, undecided; Swaps runner-up Like a Hero, Laffit Pincay Jr.; and Island Skipper, Jose Rivera. Island Skipper won a stakes for Florida-breds at Calder July 20 but will be a big longshot on Sunday.

Richard Migliore rode Magic Weisner in his last three starts dating to the Preakness, but he may stay at Saratoga on Sunday to ride Iron Deputy in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy. According to Migliore, trainer Nancy Alberts said she would keep the mount open on Magic Weisner through Thursday. If Migliore does not ride Magic Weisner, Mike Luzzi will pick up the mount.

Probable for the race are Easyfromthegitgo, winner of the Iowa Derby, and the Tony Reinstedler-trained Peekskill.

Running Tide, undefeated in five starts, was considered possible, but trainer Rodney Jenkins said he will bypass the Haskell in favor of the West Virginia Derby next week.

- additional reporting by Jay Privman