Three of the top four finishers in the Derby are headed to Baltimore for the Preakness Stakes on May 18 at Pimlico. They will be joined by fresh horses looking to derail War Emblem, surprise winner of Saturday's Derby at Churchill Downs, as he seeks to claim the second jewel of the Triple Crown.
Sent off at 20-1 as an unproved speed horse, War Emblem captured the Derby wire-to-wire in a dazzling display of power and pace control. His trainer, Bob Baffert, said yesterday that the son of Our Emblem, the Maryland sire, might be capable of sweeping the Derby, Preakness and Belmont and becoming the 12th winner of racing's Triple Crown.
"He's a good horse," Baffert said. "He's a really good horse. The cat's out of the bag now."
Baffert had played down War Emblem's chances, saying he still didn't know the colt that well. Baffert began training War Emblem only three weeks before the Derby. One of his major clients, Saudi Prince Ahmed bin Salman, had bought 90 percent of War Emblem for $990,000 and turned him over to Baffert for the Derby.
Baffert didn't predict a Triple Crown sweep with War Emblem. He merely said that the colt "could" do what Baffert's earlier trainees could not. Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998 and Point Given last year won two of the three Triple Crown races.
Point Given lost the Derby as the favorite, but then won the Preakness and Belmont on his way to becoming Horse of the Year.
"It was empty without the Derby," Baffert said. "I would have traded my Preakness and Belmont for John Ward's Derby."
Trainer John Ward Jr. won last year's Derby with Monarchos. This year, Baffert said: "I got the Derby. The Triple Crown, if I get it, great."
Ward may have as much to say about that as any trainer. He said yesterday that he plans on running his speedy Booklet in the Preakness. The pint-sized son of Notebook, to be ridden by Pat Day, likely will pressure War Emblem, preventing him from setting the comfortable fractions that allowed him to win the Derby.
"If the [Derby] winner tries to set that slow of a pace in the Preakness, we'll be right with him or just in front of him," Ward said. "I have a feeling a lot of people won't let that happen again."
The Derby horses heading for a rematch with War Emblem are runner-up Proud Citizen, fourth-place finisher Medaglia d'Oro and possibly the beaten favorite and seventh-place finisher Harlan's Holiday.
Bobby Frankel boldly predicted victory for Medaglia d'Oro, who encountered trouble in the Derby but was still the only horse closing in the stretch.
"I'm going to win the Preakness with him," Frankel told a reporter for The Blood-Horse daily Web site.
Ken McPeek, trainer of Harlan's Holiday, said that he would like to run the colt in the Preakness but that he had not yet discussed it with the horse's owners.
"Personally, I'm leaning toward trying him again," he said, referring to the Derby winner. "I think our horse probably suits Pimlico more than Churchill Downs anyway."
The Derby took its toll on Saarland, who finished 10th. He emerged from the race with a bone chip in his left front ankle. He was to have been transported later yesterday to the Rood & Riddle equine hospital in Lexington for surgery.
Nancy Alberts, who trains Magic Weisner at Laurel Park, said that she still wants to run her horse in the Preakness.
"He didn't scare me," she said of War Emblem. "He ran a dynamite race, but somebody's got to go out early and bother that horse. I don't know if we can beat him, but I'm real excited about trying."
Steve Asmussen, whose Private Emblem finished 14th in the Derby, said that he would take on War Emblem in the Preakness with Easyfromthegitgo. He said he was impressed with War Emblem's strong Derby performance. If he can repeat that in the Preakness and Belmont, Asmussen said, then he can the Triple Crown.
"In any event," Asmussen said, "he won the Derby, and his name will be on the cup forever."
What: 127th Preakness Stakes, second leg of thoroughbred horse racing's Triple Crown
When: May 18
Post time: 6:04 p.m.
Where: Pimlico Race Course
Distance: 1 3/16 miles
Purse: $1 million