Steve's Haskin's Derby Story (Cont.)

Mulhall, meanwhile, contacted Baffert and told him the prince was looking to buy War Emblem, being his current owner was not pointing him for the Derby. Shortly after, Baffert received a phone call from bloodstock agent Don Brauer, who asked him, "Hey, you want to buy a Derby horse?"

"What horse is it?" Baffert asked. When Brauer said War Emblem, Baffert's Derby fever climbed 20 degrees in a few seconds. "You gotta be kidding; we were just talking about that horse," he said. The agent then went to work on making the deal. "We got him, baby," he said to Baffert on the phone a short time later. "We've just got to get it signed." Baffert called Salman and told him he needed his OK, but warned him the colt had a chip in his ankle and had already failed a vet's exam from a previous deal that fell through. All they would do is have him scoped. The prince gave him the go-ahead. Baffert and Mulhall went to Keeneland, where War Emblem was stabled, and watched him train. That was good enough. After an hour of negotiating, the son of Our Emblem was theirs for $900,000, with Reineman retaining 10% interest.

The word spread rapidly. Baffert had bought his way into the Derby. His critics were quick to jump all over him, but Baffert couldn't understand the criticism. "This is why we're in the business," he said one morning prior to the Derby. "It's part of the game. When a baseball player breaks his bat, does he go back to the locker room? No, he gets another bat. That's what I did, I got another bat. My job is to get people to the major races. If we didn't buy him, someone else probably would have. You cannot put a price on the satisfaction of watching a horse that you own win the Derby in your colors."

So, Baffert was in the Derby for the seventh straight year, but there was work to be done, and not a lot of time to do it. There was a lot more to War Emblem than working him and throwing a saddle on him. The colt was mean, strong, and was used to getting his own way. He'd pin his ears in his stall, and pity any passerby who wasn't paying attention. You couldn't get a bridle on him and you couldn't saddle him in the paddock. There was more to this Black Beauty than Baffert realized.

Springer had filled Baffert in on War Emblem's character flaws, wished him good luck, and headed back home to Chicago, where he'd watch the Derby on television. Baffert realized a Derby horse had fallen into his lap, and appreciated the work Springer had done with him. He told Springer if he did win one of the Triple Crown races, he would split his share of the bonus with him.

Baffert had to teach War Emblem to relax and control all that aggression. Instead of using the standard D-bit and noseband in which he had been running, Baffert changed to a ring bit for better control, and put on a tongue tie to help prevent him from displacing his soft palate. The colt responded to Baffert's feeding program and soon began to put on weight. Once too aggressive with the pony, he now was more settled. Each day, his gallops got stronger, and his works were smooth as silk. "Damn," Baffert thought, "this s.o.b. can run." He realized he had a horse who was ready to peak. Everything was falling into place. He could actually win the Derby.

Meanwhile, Lukas ran Proud Citizen in the Lexington and the son of Gone West wired his field by 3 1/4 lengths at odds of 8-1. Just like that, Lukas was in the Derby as well. A sense of normalcy had returned to Churchill Downs.

Horses soon began arriving from all over the country, with three contestants flying in from overseas. Godolphin's Essence of Dubai, winner of the UAE Derby (UAE-II) at 1 1/4 miles, came from Sheikh Mohammed's homeland in the Persian Gulf. The 2001 Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) winner, Johannesburg, and his stablemate, Castle Gandolfo, were due to arrive Derby morning after being quarantined at Keeneland following their trip from Ballydoyle in Ireland.

In America, no one could make heads or tails of this year's crop of 3-year-olds, as Santa Anita Derby winner Came Home and Florida Derby (gr. I) and Blue Grass (gr. I) winner Harlan's Holiday were getting little respect. The Wood Memorial (gr. I) caught everyone's attention, but the first- and second-place finishers, Buddha and Medaglia d'Oro, respectively, had only four career starts each, and the last horse to win the Derby off four starts was Exterminator in 1918. Confusion was the natural order of things in the weeks leading up to the race.

At Baffert's barn, his Kentucky Derby-winning signs (from Silver Charm and Real Quiet) had been taken down in his absence. What better year to start a new collection? Several hundred yards away, Lukas was becoming more confident by the day. What better year to have a horse named Proud Citizen? Lukas adorned his barn with patriotic signs and pictures of American flags. Several days before the Derby, the colt's exercise rider, Dimitri Dimitropoulos, became an American citizen. When Proud Citizen sizzled five furlongs in :58 4/5, without urging, the Monday before the race, Lukas' confidence swelled.

In one of the most wide-open fields in memory, two of the greatest Kentucky Derby trainers of all time were beaming with confidence, and no one listened.
But for Baffert, all the pieces were falling into place. On entry day, he shocked everyone by entering Mike Pegram's Danthebluegrassman, knocking Team Valor and William Heiligbrodt's Windward Passage out of the race, much to the embarrassment of Team Valor president Barry Irwin, who had to tell the colt's 19 owners at the entrance of the Kentucky Derby Museum--where the post position draw was being held--to go home. Conspiracy theorists jumped all over it. Up in the press box, the feeling was Baffert had gone too far, and he and Pegram were attacked in print. Baffert was appalled that Pegram, who had done so much for racing and racing-related charities, was treated so harshly. He said he made a last-minute decision after watching the colt work, and that everything was done by the rules. Irwin was not upset at Baffert as much as he was at Churchill Downs for failing to inform him of the surprise entry. Churchill claimed it was the responsibility of the horse's connections to check on his status after entries closed. In the event of 20 or more entrants, starting berths were determined by money won in graded stakes.

To add to the controversy and the seething emotions that were building, Baffert then scratched Danthebluegrassman the morning of the race after the colt tied up (suffered muscle cramps) following a jog. He was treated with Banamine and a muscle relaxant. Fearing the same fate for War Emblem, who was "an animal" that morning, Baffert told exercise rider Mick Jenner, "We better gallop that son of a gun." The colt was feeling so good, Baffert thought maybe he should have done a little more with him. "God, he was awesome," Baffert said.

Continued...

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