Steve Haskin's Preakness Report (5/9): War Games

Let the games begin. The rules are simple: you start off by moving the War Emblem piece up two spaces. That's right, like a head start. Then, each person takes his turn rolling the dice. The object of the game is simple: pass the War Emblem piece and reach the finish first. The hard part is how to go about accomplishing that without sacrificing your own piece. You see, each player gets two rolls of the dice per round. You can choose the high number or the low number. If you choose the high number and manage to catch the War Emblem piece, you must keep rolling high numbers the rest of the way or you're out of the game.

So, do you take a chance and go for the high number, or do you choose the low number and wait for someone else to take the risk? It may sound confusing, but it really isn't. That is the game that will be played in the Preakness Stakes in nine days, only this time it will be played with real-life pieces, and the rewards will not be in funny money.

So, will War Emblem be a marked horse or will the fear factor set in again, with no one willing to see if there is a sheep under the wolf's clothing? If they guess wrong and there isn't a sheep under there, then they know darn well who his first meal is going to be.

Bobby Frankel, who's been rolling the dice since he was a young, cocky kid growing up in the streets of Brooklyn, N.Y., is still rolling them, although now it's with big, big bucks. But, he's still the same cocky kid, and when a cocky kid from Brooklyn gets his pockets picked, you can be sure he's not going to let it happen again. He has all but assured we will not see a repeat of the Derby if he has any say in the matter.

Also, the shrewd Kentuckian John Ward is heading to Baltimore with a bullet named Booklet, even though he is fully aware what happens when two bullets collide at full speed.

"Personally, I think everyone will be after War Emblem," Ward said on a national teleconference Thursday. "It'll be like the start of the Indy 500. You'll see a real jam up on the first turn. Booklet is fresh and resilient, and I think he's a dangerous weapon in Pat's (Day) hands. I believe you're going to see War Emblem and Booklet locked together for most of the race."

You even have a new player named Menacing Dennis. Even if he turns out to be nothing more than a gnat menacing a water buffalo and provides only a minor annoyance to the Kentucky Derby winner, he still could change the complexion of the game just a little.

And, finally, we have D. Wayne Lukas, who no doubt didn't take kindly to seeing his American flag-waving Proud Citizen taste defeat under those circumstances. Now that he's strengthened the foundation under his equine Adonis, you can bet he's not going to sit back and let this pretty boy get dirt kicked in his face by War Emblem again.

So, with a whole new scenario developing for the Preakness, what is War Emblem's trainer Bob Baffert going to do about it? Baffert has never won the Derby without winning the Preakness, and if anyone has a Triple Crown that's owed to him it's Baffert after his two heartbreaking defeats in 1997 and '98.

"The Preakness will be different," Baffert said on the teleconference. "Nobody saw this horse developing every day the way we did. I didn't do too much bragging, because I wanted them to leave him alone (on the lead). I told Victor (Espinoza) they're probably not going to pay much attention to you. Now they know. But this horse knows only one way to run, and if he doesn't get there he doesn't get there. We can't do anything about it. But they also know whoever goes with him isn't likely to be around at the end. He's as good as any horse I've brought (to the Derby), and that was a pretty devastating win."

It's apparent the wheels are already turning, and the mind games have begun. Words and innuendos are the only weapons the trainers have until the Battle of Baltimore on May 18. The premise of Thoroughbred racing has always been, "My horse is faster than your horse," and that's certainly the case in this year's Preakness. It won't be long until we find out who's right.