Our Emblem's popularity soars

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Audrey Murray answered the telephone at Murmur Farm in Maryland.

"Can I call you back?" she said. "I'm booking a mare."

To whom?

"Our Emblem," she replied. "Who else?"

The phone hasn't stopped ringing at Audrey and Allen Murray's farm in Darlington since not one but two sons of Our Emblem convincingly won major stakes for 3-year-olds earlier this month and strode confidently onto center stage for the Kentucky Derby.

The first leg of the Triple Crown will be run here Saturday at Churchill Downs.

The Murrays, who started out in the 1950s hauling horses in a converted beer truck, bought Our Emblem in November after the young sire had proved a bust in Kentucky. The ink had barely dried on the contract when Our Emblem's offspring suddenly started winning.

The turnaround culminated in War Emblem's 6 1/4 -length romp April 6 in the Illinois Derby and Private Emblem's decisive, 4 1/2 -length score a week later in the Arkansas Derby. War Emblem's gate-to-wire win earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 112, the highest of any 3-year-old this year.

The Murrays had struggled to book 40 mares, mostly from Maryland, to their new stallion for $4,000 apiece. After the Illinois and Arkansas derbies, they were inundated with calls from mare owners in New York, Florida and Kentucky. The Murrays took reservations for as much as $7,500 per breeding. They filled Our Emblem's book with 92 mares.

"It's been overwhelming," Audrey said.

"Yes," Allen added, "but we know how things can change overnight. You can be on top one day and things can go to pot the next."

Callers haven't only been offering congratulations and scheduling appointments for their mares. Some are offering to buy Our Emblem.

The Murrays have rejected all offers so far. But in a strange twist of breeding economics, Our Emblem could become so valuable that the Murrays have no choice but to sell him. Maryland could lose a regally bred stallion with the potential to become one of the top sires in the region, if not the country.

The future of Our Emblem - and the potential windfall for Maryland - could depend on what happens in the Derby.

War Emblem is running in the Derby because Saudi Arabian Prince Ahmed bin Salman, whose The Thoroughbred Corp. campaigned Point Given, bought him after the Illinois Derby. The colt's previous owner had said the speedball was better suited for the Preakness.

Prince Salman turned the colt over to the high-profile Bob Baffert. The California trainer won back-to-back Kentucky Derbys in 1997 with Silver Charm and 1998 with Real Quiet. This year, however, Baffert's 3-year-olds failed to develop into Derby contenders, and he was prepared to sit this one out.

"I just put him into my style of training, and he's taken to it," Baffert said. "My style is very aggressive for the Derby. That's how you've got to do it."

Baffert said he didn't feel badly about "stealing" someone's Derby horse because War Emblem wasn't being pointed to the Derby in the first place. The colt's front-running style differs from Baffert's typical Derby horse.

"I usually come in here with a horse who's tractable," Baffert said. "But this horse has speed. You can't rate him. If you try to fight him, you'll take the fight out of him."

He acknowledged that that usually isn't the ideal Derby style, as the torrid pace in most Derbys cooks front-runners. But having had War Emblem for less than a month, he lacked time for adjustments.

Asked whether he knew where War Emblem's sire was, Baffert said: "Yeah, he's in Maryland. I never knew anything about him. Now, I know everything about him. He's got the most awesome breeding.

"I'm going to start looking at his babies at the sales. I guess I'll have to go to Timonium Downs to look at them."

Baffert laughed. He was joking about the auctions at the state fairgrounds in Timonium. But he wasn't joking, he said, about being impressed with Our Emblem.

Steve Asmussen, who trains Private Emblem, the other son of Our Emblem in the Derby, wasn't so sure about the stallion's whereabouts.

"I've heard he's in Maryland, but I don't know," Asmussen said. "All I know is I'd rather have the best Our Emblem than the worst Mr. Prospector."

Private Emblem is the most accomplished horse sired by Our Emblem. He has won all three of his races this year, all three stakes. He has won on the turf, in the mud and on fast tracks.

"I could not have anticipated nor did I expect that strong performance in the Arkansas Derby," Asmussen said. "Now, he's going in one or two directions. Either that was his peak performance and he's getting ready to regress, or he's getting better and that's who he is."

Asmussen said he has no reason to believe that Private Emblem isn't still progressing. He said he expects another strong performance in the Derby.

The Murrays will be watching. They've planned a Derby party at their farm.

Audrey said she has mixed emotions about the race. She wants Our Emblem's sons to run well, but she also wants to keep Our Emblem. If War Emblem or Private Emblem were to win or come close, the Murrays might receive an offer they couldn't refuse.

Our Emblem could become the valuable replacement for Norquestor, Murmur's outstanding sire who died unexpectedly in 1999. Norquestor serviced 102 mares the year before.

"That was a terrible blow," Audrey said. "He was part of the family."

Our Emblem's pedigree indicates unlimited potential. He is a son of Mr. Prospector and the undefeated racehorse and top broodmare Personal Ensign. Our Emblem is only 11. Claiborne Farm in Kentucky gave up on him after his first two crops failed to impress on the track or in the sales ring.

"We took a chance," Allen said. "With that breeding, we just felt he had to come up with something good."

Kentucky Derby

What:128th Kentucky Derby, first leg of thoroughbred horse racing's Triple Crown series

When:Saturday

Post time:6:04 p.m.

Where:Churchill Downs, Louisville, Ky.

Distance:1 1/4 miles

Purse:$1 million

TV:Chs. 11, 4

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