War Emblem doomed at start, falters in last leg of Triple Crown

Sunday, June 9, 2002

NEW YORK -- Bob Baffert was right -- a bad start was the only thing that could keep War Emblem from winning the Triple Crown.

As soon as the gates sprang open and the black colt nearly fell to his knees, the trainer knew he and his horse were doomed.

Just like that, the front-runner was behind. Just like that, Baffert realized he would come up short again in this third try to win a Triple Crown.

At the wire, 70-1 shot Sarava finished a half-length ahead of Medaglia d'Oro on Saturday to become the highest priced winner in the 134-year history of the Belmont Stakes, returning $142.50 for a $2 bet.

When War Emblem crossed the finish line under jockey Victor Espinoza, he was eighth in the 11-horse field, nearly 31 lengths behind.

"I said the only thing that could beat us was a bad break," Baffert said. "Victor did the best he could. It was gut-wrenching to have to watch the whole race.

"If I had a walkie-talkie I would have told him to pull up right there. I didn't want him running a mile and a half like that."

Sent off as the 6-5 favorite by a record-crowd of 103,222 that jammed the grandstand at Belmont Park, War Emblem just ran out of gas in the final turn of the demanding 1 1/2-mile test -- the longest of the Triple Crown series.

It looked nothing like his wire-to-wire victory in the Kentucky Derby or his three-quarter length win in the Preakness.

For Baffert, the heartbreak was familiar.

In 1997, Silver Charm lost the Triple Crown by three-quarters of a length to Touch Gold, and in 1998, Real Quiet was beaten by a nose by Victory Gallop. No trainer had ever lost the Belmont three times with horses that had won the Derby and Preakness.

"I feel empty," Baffert said. "I feel like I let the fans down. The hardest loss I had compared to this was when I got beat by a nose in the Derby because I never thought I'd get there again."

War Emblem's defeat leaves racing still aching for its first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

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