Baffert nears elusive Triple

May 21, 2002 9:55 AM

Move over Affirmed.

If a there’s a horse that can beat War Emblem in the Belmont Stakes on June 8, he probably didn’t run behind victorious War Emblem in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes.

Thus the Belmont, final leg of the Triple Crown, is an ideal venue for War Emblem to become the 12th Triple Crown winner and the first since Affirmed in 1978.

If new shooter Sunday Break fares well in Saturday’s Peter Pan and moves on to the Belmont, the Neil Drysdale trainee has the talent to deny War Emblem the Triple Crown. Or, perhaps it will be Derby third Perfect Drift, who skipped the Preakness.


A Belmont defeat would not be new to Bob Baffert, who has trained War Emblem for all of one month, since the son of Our Emblem was purchased for $900,000 by Prince Ahmed Salman of The Thoroughbred Corp. Twice before Baffert has been on the verge of winning the Triple Crown, only to lose the Belmont by a combined margin of less than a length. Touch Gold beat his Silver Charm by three-quarters of a length in 1997, and Victory Gallop got up in the last jump to nose out Real Quiet in 1998.

It is a misconception that the marathon distance of the Belmont favors devout closers. The majority of Belmont winners are in the race early. Speed is an advantage and War Emblem has that undeniable asset. At a mile and a half in circumference, Belmont is the largest one-turn main track in America, and at a mile and a half, the Belmont Stakes is the longest of the Triple Crown races. But its distance is unfavorable for out-of-the-clouds stretch runners.

Which is why War Emblem and his unflappable rider, Victor Espinoza, are sitting pretty. To his credit, Espinoza remains the same happy-go-lucky guy he was before he won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.

"Success won’t change me," said Espinoza, who turns 30 on Thursday. "The only thing that changes is now I have to be more focused on my job, work harder than before. Every time I win a big race, I get more into the business. I have to set a good example."

Unlike Baffert, Espinoza does not bask in the national spotlight.

THAT’S 2 ”” Espinoza and War Emblem proved Derby was no fluke.

"I prefer to have my privacy most of the time," said Espinoza, who cooperates with the media despite his lack of command of the English language. Espinoza handled himself well during a recent spot on Fox TV’s "The Best Damn Sports Show Period."

Behind Espinoza’s ready smile is a serious foundation.

"I never dream (good) things ”” only scary things like nightmares," Espinoza said, laughing. "Really, I just go day by day. Everything has always come naturally and I never have set any goals, such as becoming a top jockey. I come to the track and do my best."

A major reason behind Espinoza’s ascension is his agent, Tony Matos, who handled business for Laffit Pincay Jr., Angel Cordero and Kent Desormeaux during their Kentucky Derby-winning years.

"Basically, Tony and I have been very lucky," Espinoza said. "We work well together. He’s been an agent for a long time and every jockey he’s had, it seems they get lucky. We’re a good combination."

Espinoza has one expensive off-track indulgence ”” sports cars.

"I like fast cars," the native of Mexico City said. "I like the power and that’s why I like to ride good horses; they have a lot of power. I have several cars, including a Lamborghini and a Mercedes. The Lamborghini has a speedometer that goes over 200 miles an hour. Sometimes on the California freeways, I go a little fast, but never that fast. I have to watch out for everything."

Whether on the freeway or in the Belmont Stakes, Espinoza always checks his rear-view mirror.

So far, he likes what he sees.

THE HOMESTRETCH: Jerry Bailey really moved up Medaglia d’Oro, eh? . . . Siphonic, one of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby before he was sidelined with an ankle injury after the March 17 San Felipe Stakes, is recovering at John and wife Jerry Amerman’s Peacefield Farm in California. "He’s at the ranch, but he’s coming back (to Hollywood Park) on June 1 and we’ll get him ready for the fall," trainer David Hofmans said of the son of Siphon. Asked what he thought of the current crop of 3-year-olds and how Siphonic would have fared against them, Hofmans smiled and said: "I just wish I had him here." The Amermans, meanwhile, are off on a month-long vacation to Europe. John is the former Mattel Toys mogul . . . Film director Gary Ross was at Hollywood Park last Friday scouting a location for the movie, "Seabiscuit," based on the New York Times’ No. 1 best-selling, award-winning book by Laura Hillenbrand. Universal Pictures is scheduled to begin production later this year and Gary Stevens reportedly is up for the role of jockey Red Pollard . . . Kent Desormeaux, who rode in Japan for a few months last year, will ride in the Japan Derby on Saturday. He expects to return to Hollywood to ride Astra in the Gamely Handicap and Decarchy in the Shoemaker Handicap, both $500,000 races, on Memorial Day . . . Attention trivia buffs: in case anyone ever asks, the initials "A.C." belonging to longshot trainer A.C. Avila stand for Antonio Carlos.