06/18/2002 11:00PM

Was War Emblem ridden too cautiously?

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PHILADELPHIA - Has a horse ever gone from no chance to hero to no account faster than War Emblem?

Wasn't it less than two weeks ago that War Emblem, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, was being hailed far and wide? Perhaps that was my imagination. Or perhaps it was everybody's.

A few days before the Belmont Stakes, I wrote that "War Emblem is so clearly the best horse in the race that only very bad luck, rider error, or injury should be able to beat him in the Belmont.''

As far as I know, the horse wasn't injured.

I've looked at the tape of the first half-mile dozens of times. I have an opinion. I asked a very sharp player for his opinion. He saw what I saw, but had a different viewpoint on what it meant.

Everybody knows what happened at the start. War Emblem's break certainly constitutes bad luck. So, what about Victor Espinoza?

Once War Emblem recovered from the break and found an opening in the first few hundred yards that took him right near the leaders, the jockey had a monumental decision to make. He had barely averted disaster. His horse already had gone quickly to get back into the race. What he was looking at would have been a difficult dilemma for a rider in a race that nobody cared about. It was incredible pressure under the circumstances.

Afterward, Espinoza said he wanted to "save something.'' In many cases, with more than a mile to go in a 1 1/2-mile race, that would have been a prudent decision. Midway through the first turn, War Emblem had Wiseman's Ferry just in front and to his inside. He appeared to be on even terms with Medaglia d'Oro and Proud Citizen to his outside. There appeared to be a hole for War Emblem to get through.

My friend thinks Espinoza put War Emblem in position to get through that hole and see the air in front of him that he so clearly prefers. He thinks the horse did not want to go through. I am not as sure. I think Espinoza was so concerned about using his horse too soon that he sat back.

Suddenly, War Emblem was fourth behind horses. And whatever slim chance the horse had was gone. War Emblem fought the jockey for a half-mile and predictably hit the wall at the top of the stretch.

Would it have been different if War Emblem had gone through that hole, cleared the two horses to his outside and been sitting just outside Wiseman's Ferry in the run down the backstretch?

There is no way to know for sure. I do know this. It could not have been worse.

The knock on War Emblem is that he is one-dimensional. This is precisely why, in my opinion, he should have been ridden aggressively even after the horrible start. The horse simply can't handle being behind other horses. He needs to run free. Then, he gets into that giant stride and that wonderful cruising speed Bob Baffert has talked about.

War Emblem's three Beyers before the Belmont were 112, 114, and 109. Sarava won the Belmont with a 105. Clearly, War Emblem had the ability to win the race.

So what happens next? Is War Emblem another Charismatic without the bad ending? Their careers look eerily similar. Win a final Derby prep in fast time. Win the Derby at long odds. Run big again in the Preakness.

Did War Emblem just get good for two months for no reason? Were those big Beyers just flukes or was the Belmont a fluke?

One-dimensional horses are at the mercy of luck, good and bad. The truly great horses make their own luck. War Emblem had great luck in Kentucky, terrible luck in New York.

The Triple Crown takes such a terrible toll on these horses that it is hard to predict anything about their futures. Point Given won the Haskell and Travers last year after the Triple Crown, but he was not nearly as dynamic. And then he was gone.

Will we see War Emblem again? And, if so, will we see the "real'' War Emblem, whatever that is.

My guess is that this really isn't so complicated. Like some horses that run at every track in America, War Emblem is far better than his peers when he leads early in the race. When he does not, his race is over. I'm thinking War Emblem is going to lead some more races.