Victor Espinoza has reason to celebrate as War Emblem wins the Preakness Stakes.

Victor Espinoza has reason to celebrate as War Emblem wins the Preakness Stakes.

Anne M. Eberhardt

Triple Crown Threat: War Emblem Wins Preakness

War Emblem will have shot to become racing's 12th Triple Crown winner following his dramatic victory in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) at Pimlico. Following a wire-to-wire score in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) two weeks ago, jockey Victor Espinoza rated War Emblem off a quick pace, got to the lead on the turn, then held off a strong rally by Maryland-bred Magic Weisner to win by three-quarters of a length. Proud Citizen, the Derby runner-up, finished third.

Owned by Prince Ahmed Salman's The Thoroughbred Corp. and trained by Bob Baffert, War Emblem now must head to Belmont Park for the June 8 Belmont Stakes (gr. I) to bid to become first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. Seattle Slew, the last living Triple Crown winner, died May 7. Baffert has been down this road before, first with Silver Charm in 1997 and in 1998 with Real Quiet.

Breaking sharpest from the gate, longshot Menacing Dennis led the pack as the field of 13 3-year-olds passed the wire the first time in the 1 3/16-miles race. Espinoza and War Emblem followed and they were joined by Booklet. The opening quarter was run in a brisk :22.87. Into the first turn, Menacing Dennis held the rail and the lead, with War Emblem tracking. Booklet was third and was quickly joined by Medaglia d'Oro along the inside. Time for the opening half was :46.10.

"We've been trying to get him to relax," Baffert said. "He still wants to get into the bit. I think he learned a lot from it today."

Down the backstretch, War Emblem coasted to the lead while still under a snug hold as Menacing Dennis retreated. To his outside, Proud Citizen gained ground, poised to make his bid under Mike Smith. Booklet remained a factor and Medaglia d'Oro was a threat inside. U S S Tinosa was on the rail. After six furlongs in 1:10.60, War Emblem and Proud Citizen began to pull away from the pack as they rounded the far turn. In early stretch, Proud Citizen rallied, getting to within a half-length of the Derby winner, but Espinoza was still just showing War Emblem the whip. Giving a few right-handed taps, War Emblem responded, pulling away again from Proud Citizen.

Longshot Magic Weisner came flying from far back and down the middle of the track. He passed Proud Citizen in the final yards and was quickly gaining on the winner. The gelding son of Ameri Valay was three-quarters of a length ahead of Proud Citizen, who finished 1 ½ lengths ahead of Harlan's Holiday.

The mile was run in 1:36.22. Final time for the Preakness was 1:56.36. The Preakness record is held by Louis Quatorze who ran in 1:53 2/5 in 1996.

War Emblem paid $7.60, $6, and $4.40. Magic Weisner paid $33 to place and $14 to show. Proud Citizen returned $5. The 8-2 exacta paid $327. The trifecta, 8-2-12, paid $2,311. The $1 superfecta paid $6,701.50.

War Emblem was the favorite for the Preakness, after being 20-1 in the Derby.

"Today showed that opinions die, and records live," said Baffert. "This horse is for real. All we have to do is keep War Emblem healthy and fresh and ready and keep Victor healthy. Victor has this horse figured out. He's having fun. But now the pressure is on for the Belmont. There will be more shooters, more rabbits."

The complete order of finish was: War Emblem, Magic Weisner, Proud Citizen, Harlan's Holiday, Easyfromthegitgo, U S S Tinosa, Crimson Hero, Medaglia d'Oro, Straight Gin, Menacing Dennis, Table Limit, Booklet, and Equality. Straight Gin was vanned off following the running of the race, having bowed a tendon.

War Emblem was bred in Kentucky by Charles Nuckols Jr. & Sons. He is by Our Emblem, out of the Lord At War mare, Sweetest Lady. Raced earlier in his career by Russell Reineman, War Emblem was purchased for a reported $900,000 following his victory in the Illinois Derby (gr. III) on April 6.

It marked the fourth Preakness win for Baffert since 1997. He won with Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998, and Point Given last year. Point Given, also owned by The Thoroughbred Corp., also won the Belmont, giving Baffert and Salman wins in four consecutive Triple Crown races. Both Silver Charm and Real Quiet won the first two legs of the Triple Crown. Charismatic won the first two legs of the Triple Crown in 1999.

Espinoza got his first Preakness win from just three starters. He was second last year while aboard A P Valentine. (Chart, Equibase)