Sportsman's Park Race Report: Battle Lines

Published in the April 13 issue of The Blood-Horse
California trainer David La Croix verbalized what most of the entrants were thinking in the days leading up to the April 6 Illinois Derby (gr. II) when he said he was looking for a "back door" to the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) for Fonz's.

Kenny McPeek had another reason to be in Cicero, Ill., with 3-year-old star Repent: He was seeking to add a potential third $1-million bonus if his horse could complete an Illinois-Kentucky Derby double.

But for 84-year-old owner-breeder Russell L. Reineman and trainer Frank "Bobby" Springer, the $500,000 Illinois Derby was the goal for War Emblem. And they were rewarded with Reineman's biggest local win in 52 years as an owner when their front-running colt blazed to a 61/4-length win in a quick 1:49.92 for the nine furlongs.

Springer brought War Emblem to Sportsman's Park a month before the Illinois Derby, getting a useful prep into him with a 10 3/4-length allowance victory at a mile. He looked to possess the controlling speed among the Derby runners, but conditions became even more favorable when stewards scratched the quick One Tuff Fox an hour before the race for failure to comply with Illinois Lasix rules.

The charcoal-colored son of Our Emblem, out of the Lord At War mare Sweetest Lady, rolled to an early 11/2-length lead and increased his margin through soft fractions of :23.51, :48.30, 1:13.03, and 1:37.77. Fonz's became the sacrificial stalker, but when War Emblem entered the stretch with a five-length lead, only 1-2 favorite Repent, who had a wide trip under Jerry Bailey and didn't appear to be handling the track well, seemed to have any chance to catch him. But War Emblem widened his lead to score the second-largest margin of victory in the 45-year history of the race, with Fonz's another 41/2 lengths behind Repent in third and the six also-rans, led by Robin Zee, well strung out and far back.

McPeek took the defeat philosophically. "This is a horse that has to have a lively pace in front of him. When you get a 48-second half-mile with this kind of runner that I have, it works against him. It worked against him at the Fair Grounds, too (in the Louisiana Derby, gr. II). He was fortunate to win that day. And he still ran well today, and more than likely we'll still run him in the Kentucky Derby. He just won't have that large a star around him."

In the minutes before the Derby, McPeek watched via simulcast as his superstar filly Take Charge Lady scored a dazzling victory in the Ashland Stakes (gr. I) at Keeneland. He was considering the possibilities of having Repent, Take Charge Lady, and Harlan's Holiday in the Derby. Asked whether he would run the filly in the Derby, McPeek replied, "It's something we'll probably look at. We'll think it through real hard. But she's so fast. It's probably something we'll have to consider."

Two days after those comments, Repent was sidelined after X-rays revealed an ankle chip. No decision had been made for Take Charge Ladys' next start.

The veteran Reineman wasn't getting Derby fever with War Emblem, whom trainer Springer considers to be a better fit for the May 18 Preakness Stakes (gr. I). Reineman said his horses have fared poorly in two previous Runs for the Roses, and said, "If you're in this business to be successful, you have to place them where they belong." The Oak Brook, Ill., rolled-steel magnate won the 1986 Travers Stakes (gr. I) with Wise Times and the 1990 Super Derby (gr. I) with Home At Last.

Springer admitted he has reservations about War Emblem's ability to get the Derby distance. "Today he could have," he said. "Whether he could have at Churchill Downs with that kind of field and that kind of class, I don't know."

Charles Nuckols Jr. and Sons are listed as the Kentucky breeders of War Emblem, but Reineman is the actual breeder under a longtime lease-back arrangement with the farm. Reineman bought back the colt, whose dam he owns and raced, for $20,000 at the Keeneland September yearling sale. His $300,000 Illinois Derby check brought his career earnings to $366,000.

Jockey Larry Sterling Jr. admitted his biggest payday in racing was also among his easiest. "He (War Emblem) was just doing it so easy," the rider said. "I just had to make sure that if Repent was coming or anybody else, he'd have plenty left to fight
them off."

(Chart, Equibase)