It was Moss who proved to be the prophet. After looking at a photo of Lukas-trained Grindstone beating Baffert and Cavonnier in the 1996 Derby, she realized that this year's race was six years later to the day. She told Baffert, "You're going to win it and (Lukas) is going to be second. You're going to turn it around this time." As in 1996, when he bought Silver Charm in Ocala a week before the Derby, Baffert recently purchased a big, strong, gray colt, similar to Silver Charm, at the same sale. Suddenly a wave of good vibes hit him. Maybe this is meant to be, he thought.
The morning of the race, the third member of the Derby dominators of the '90s, Nick Zito, told Baffert, "You're going to win it. They're all going to leave you alone on the lead."
Derby Day was picture-perfect, with mild temperatures and a cloudless sky. Trainer Jim Bond still was visibly shaken after having to scratch Buddha the day before due to a possible shoulder injury. That was one less classy, fast horse for War Emblem to contend with. Harlan's Holiday closed as the 6-1 favorite, the highest-priced Derby favorite ever. Saarland and Medaglia d'Oro were at 6-1, with Perfect Drift 7-1, and Came Home and Johannesburg at 8-1.
Baffert was conspicuous by his absence in the walkover from the stable area. Lukas had hotwalker Brian Fitzgerald lead the Proud Citizen contingent waving a large American flag, while others in the group handed out smaller flags to the crowd lining the rail.
The running of the Derby was as anticlimactic as any in memory. Earlier in the week, Bill Mott, trainer of Wood Memorial fifth-place finisher Blue Burner, said, "In the Wood, the first three horses went around the first turn and they finished in that same order. Now, I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts that the first three that come around the first turn in the Derby are not going to finish in that order. I don't give a damn; I'll bet almost everything in my pocket that's not going to happen."
Mott would have lost the bet, for that's exactly what happened. Victor Espinoza got War Emblem to the lead, as expected, with Proud Citizen a length or two behind. Eddie Delahoussaye, on Perfect Drift, saw the unfavorable scenario developing and put Perfect Drift right into the hunt along the inside. Medaglia d'Oro was bumped at the start by Essence of Dubai, who had thrown his rider, David Flores, in the paddock. Medaglia d'Oro dropped back to 10th and wasn't able to show his natural speed. From the first turn on, the lead positions never changed. No one ever came running on the far turn, and the race looked as if it were being run on a conveyor belt.
Baffert had told Espinoza to sit chilly and not move on the horse. Even turning for home, he was told to keep away from the whip, and Espinoza followed instructions perfectly. It was apparent that after setting steady fractions of :23.25, :47.04, and 1:11.75, the big, black colt gliding on the lead with long, rhythmic strides was in total control of the Kentucky Derby. He went his next quarter in almost :25 and still no one came. Then it was too late. Espinoza merely had to hand ride him, with a few waves of the whip late, through a final quarter in :24.43. Proud Citizen kept plugging away at him, finishing second, three-quarters of a length ahead of Perfect Drift. Delahoussaye tried to come up on War Emblem's inside, but Espinoza brought his colt back to the rail, causing Perfect Drift to check briefly and come back around. War Emblem spurted in the final sixteenth, drawing off to a four-length victory in 2:01.13, the ninth-fastest time in Derby history. Medaglia d'Oro, who again bumped with Essence of Dubai at the top of the stretch, closed well to be fourth.
Baffert had pulled it off. And he had given Salman the Derby he was denied last year.
"Can you believe this?" an emotionally charged Baffert said as he made his way to the winner's circle. After seeing War Emblem's owner, the two embraced. "This is my man, right here," Baffert said. "I'd carry you but you're too heavy."
Louisville police captain Steve Thompson, for whom Baffert- trained Derby runner Captain Steve was named, said it all: "The wizard did it again."
Salman told perfect strangers, "Pinch me, please."
As they walked back following the winner's circle presentation, shouts from the crowd showered down on them. The prince heard one in particular, and in trying to figure out what was said, summed up all the controversies that had surrounded his trainer and put the moment in proper perspective. He turned away from the crowd and asked no one in particular: "Was this guy shouting negative or positive?" Without missing a beat, he added, "Who cares?"