Steve Haskin's Belmont Analysis: New Chapter in History Books?

Steve Haskin's Belmont Analysis: New Chapter in History Books?
Photo: AP/Mark Lennihan
Exercise rider Mick Jenner gallops War Emblem at Belmont Park on Friday.
So, will it happen or won't it? Is War Emblem about to write a new chapter in the history books? Or will Wiseman's Ferry prove to be a thorn in the colt's side? Will Mike Smith, aboard Proud Citizen, keep the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner in his sights and dog him the whole way? Will one of the closers have enough class and stamina to kick in late and pull a Touch Gold or a Victory Gallop?

While these are all distinctly possible scenarios, the fact is, the 2002 Belmont Stakes is all about one horse – War Emblem. The race, and a special place in history, is his to win or lose. There are so many logical reasons that point to War Emblem winning the Belmont, it is difficult to look elsewhere.

The son of Our Emblem has the speed, the toughness, the class, and the stamina, while the others simply do not appear to have enough of these qualifications to stop him. With that said, however, the Belmont is still virgin territory to all these horses, and the unforeseen is something you always have to take into consideration when horses are going a mile and a half for the first time. But often, the longer distance only serves to help a superior horse demonstrate his superiority even more.

The question is, which Belmont will we see on Saturday – the kind where a Bet Twice or a Commendable dominate or where the talents of a Point Given or a Risen Star are showcased? Or will we have just a good, solid race like we did in 1992 (A.P. Indy) and 1997 (Touch Gold)?

Based on what we've seen throughout the Triple Crown and in the past couple of days, we simply can't look beyond War Emblem. We've never seen Baffert so confident, but he's confident in a nervous way, not a cocky way, as if he feels something big is going to happen, and he just wants the moment to come already.

War Emblem is becoming more professional the more we see him, and he's still in great shape physically. So, it appears he is developing into the full package. It is a distinct possibility that we haven't seen this horse's best race yet. The key is going to be how he settles over this huge race course

But there are always those who want to knock off the favorite, for whatever reason, whether it be financial or personal. And that certainly holds true this year. To those people, there is always hope that the favorite has a chink in his armor. In War Emblem's case, if he's pulling hard early like he did in the Preakness, he could get in serious trouble in the last quarter mile, especially if he engages in an early battle with Wiseman's Ferry. There is also the Victor Espinoza factor. Although Espinoza has ridden War Emblem flawlessly so far, he still is a young, inexperienced rider who had a poor record at Belmont Park last fall. There will be several top-class, veteran riders who will be looking to take advantage of that in the Belmont.

If War Emblem is going to be upset, the likely perpetrators on paper would be Perfect Drift or Proud Citizen, both quality horses who had less-than-stellar trips in their last starts. The questions with them are whether Proud Citizen has another big race in him after a rush job to make the Kentucky Derby and whether Perfect Drift has enough racing under him, with only one start since March 23. Despite his traffic problem in the Derby and having to alter his running style, he still ran like a short horse in the final eighth when he lost second to Proud Citizen. That was coming off a six-week layoff. Now he's coming off a five-week layoff. But the one thing he does have going for him is a lot of toughness and stamina in his pedigree.

Preakness runner-up Magic Weisner is still a major question mark, as is Peter Pan winner Sunday Break. The latter may be a top horse in the making, and he does have a quick turn of foot, but it hasn't been the smoothest trip getting here, and we really don't know that much about the colt. Considering he is likely going to be bet down to second or third choice, we have to wonder if the value is there.

Essence of Dubai is intriguing if you're willing to go with Godolphin yet again. Although he finished ninth in the Derby, he was the only horse who made any kind of run on the far turn. Then, after pulling within striking distance, he was wiped out pretty badly by Medaglia d'Oro, who shoved him out to the middle of the track. He's been galloping strongly and could pick up a piece of it on Sunday.

However, if you're looking for a horse who is likely to be forgotten, you have to take a shot with Medaglia d'Oro, based on looks and the way he's been training. The colt looks spectacular, and his coat has blossomed since the Preakness, with dapples breaking out all over. There will be no better-looking horse in the Belmont. Also, his last work was excellent, and we loved the way he galloped out. If you're looking for an excuse in the Preakness, albeit a pretty wild one, from the time he left his barn to the end of the post parade, he had way too many bowel movements. Before you laugh, that could have been a sign he was too nerved up or simply out of sorts that day. In any event, although it looks as if he is tailing off after cramming several big races in a short period of time, there is a distinct possibility he could rebound off the Preakness and make his presence felt. More importantly, he was 3-1 in the Preakness after his troubled fourth in the Derby, and now likely will be over 10-1 and perhaps closer to 15-1.

Sarava and Like a Hero are both impoving horses, but are strictly guesses at this point of their career. Be aware, however, that Like a Hero has the pedigree to run all day, and he's a big, strong horse. Sarava must make a big leap from 1 1/16 miles to 1 ½ miles.

So, to us, it looks like War Emblem is a horse of destiny this year. Prefect Drift is the most likely to upset him (assuming he's racing-fit), with Proud Citizen just behind him. And you have to give Medaglia d'Oro another shot at the price. Big longshots to watch in the back end of the exotics are Essence of Dubai and Like a Hero.

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