Get ready New York. Bob Baffert and War Emblem are coming.
"You guys have been waiting for that super horse; we got him," said the trainer Sunday morning at Pimlico following War Emblem's Preakness (gr. I) victory. "This horse, he's got gears. He's pretty awesome. He's getting better and better, and he's learning how to relax. There's not a 3-year-old out there that can beat him."
Baffert expressed confidence about War Emblem becoming racing's first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. The trainer won the first two legs with Silver Charm in 1997and Real Quiet in 1998, but they faltered in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I). Last year, Baffert scored in the Preakness (gr. I) and Belmont with Point Given.
War Emblem rolled to a four-length victory in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), then won by three-quarters of a length in the Preakness.
"The only reason that the Belmont (gr. I) would be tough is if, between now and then, he would go backwards on me or something," Baffert said. "I just have to keep him healthy and at that level. All I know is he's running faster than any horse I've ever brought to these races. I probably feel stronger about his Triple Crown chances than I ever felt with the other two (Silver Charm and Real Quiet). He's got something really extra that dude. When he came back (after the Preakness), he was so good. He was pretty rambunctious. Silver Charm and Real Quiet, they were tired coming back. I don't want to jinx myself, but I would start getting my room reservations (in New York) if I were you."
It's well-known that War Emblem has ankle and knee chips. But when asked if they were a worry, Baffert downplayed their significance in the colt's bid for the Triple Crown.
"They can bite any horse in the ass," the trainer said. "But as long as he's sound and his legs are ice cold and tight, that's all that matters. I'm not going to deal with it ever. I don't even know what he has. You X-ray horses when they give you a reason to X-ray them, and he's never given me reason to X-ray him. Ninety percent of the horses I've trained had chips. With Silver Charm, we went to X-ray a pastern one time because it filled up when he was a late 2-year-old, and he had a chip. But you would have never known it. Real Quiet, when they bought his breeding rights before the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), they vetted him, and he had a big old chip in his ankle."
War Emblem's Preakness performance answered a big question for Baffert.
"Now I feel much better about this horse; I know what he can do," the trainer said. "I was like you guys; I wasn't knowing if he was going to be able to rate or not. I slowed him down playing with him workouts a little bit, trying to teach him that you don't have to just go, go, go. This horse is smart, and he learns. He's getting calmer. He was such a puppy yesterday. He went over there and there were screaming fans and he never turned a hair in the paddock."
War Emblem got an early morning bath on Sunday. There appeared to be some superficial nicks around the ankles of his hind legs, but other than that, he looked no worse for wear. He is not an imposing horse physically; he does not carry a lot of weight. During the bath, he stood quietly, and his eyes looked sleepy. Wearing a gold and black Preakness winner's blanket, War Emblem walked underneath the shedrow of the Preakness barn afterward.
The colt returned to Churchill Downs on Sunday by air. Baffert expected to walk him for a few days before letting War Emblem resume his training. The trainer said the colt would probably ship to New York the Wednesday before the Belmont.
Baffert arrived at Pimlico shortly after 8:15 a.m. (EDT), with his fiance, Jill Moss, who greeted War Emblem with a kiss. Earlier in the morning Wayne Lukas and Nick Zito were on hand to talk about the Preakness. Lukas saddled Proud Citizen and Table Limit, who finished third and 11th, respectively. Zito sent out Crimson Hero and Straight Gin, who were seventh and ninth.
"I know you would like to see a Triple Crown for racing, but I'm going to bust my ass to spoil your dreams," Lukas said. "It's a three round fight, and we'll answer the bell for the third round with Proud Citizen.
"He ran well enough to win it (the Preakness), but the racing gods weren't kind. We spent too much energy getting into the race. Mike (Smith) told me this morning he spent the whole first mile trying to get up there to where he could make a run at him (War Emblem). Going into the (first) turn, Booklet opens up and lets War Emblem come in there, and then he kisses us off to the outside fence. Pat (Day) just moves over and bangs us right out there, and then we are really in trouble. We lost lengths, and lengths, and lengths right there."
Lukas also did not rule out an appearance by Table Limit. "It (the Preakness) was a complete throw-out race for him. He really took a whipping. I'll train him and see what Mr. (W.T) Young and Overbrook Farm want to do. That wasn't exactly what I had in mind as a prep in the Belmont."
Zito said Straight Gin suffered a puncture wound on his left front leg. But of more concern was the low bow he suffered in a tendon in his right front. "He hit lit like bam, hard, and I don't know when. That was really unfortunate."
Straight Gin's racing career is over. The trainer said Marylou Whitney told him she would like "to make a nice jumper" out of the colt." Added Zito, "He'll have a good home, so we don't have to worry about him."
As for Crimson Hero, "I don't why we were so far back with him," Zito said. "Chris (McCarron) said he never got a hold of the track and he never got into the bridle."
Zito probably will not run any horses in the Belmont.
"American Style is good 3-year-old, but that would be stretching it a little bit," the trainer said. "He ran a good race yesterday (winning an optional allowance/claiming race at Pimlico), and I think we should take our time with him."