Including a $5 million bonus from Visa to any horse that sweeps the Triple Crown, and with the $600,000 winner’s share of the purse in the Belmont Stakes, War Emblem stands to earn $5.6 million if he wins the 134th edition of the Belmont on Saturday.
But there’s more than money at stake if War Emblem captures the final leg of racing’s most elusive prize, the Triple Crown.
Since its inception in 1919, only 11 horses have won the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont, and none since Affirmed in 1978, a span of nearly a quarter of a century.
Bob Baffert has stood at this threshold twice before, with Silver Charm in 1997 and Real Quiet in 1998. Both won the Derby and the Preakness, but were vanquished in the Belmont, Silver Charm by Touch Gold, by three-quarters of a length, and Real Quiet by Victory Gallop, who got up in the last jump to win by a nose.
Now the white-haired trainer with the blue-collar sense of humor has his 11th-hour upstart, War Emblem, ready to tackle all comers in the mile and a half Belmont as he bids for a lofty plateau in racing’s archives.
A Belmont financial windfall would be secondary to Baffert.
"I don’t think about the money," the 49-year-old Baffert said. "It’s about history. It’s about the horse, and it would be great for me because I’d like to win it while my parents are still alive. They’re getting up there in age."
Bob’s mother, Ellie, and his father, William (they call him "Chief") are both 79 and still make their home in Nogales, Arizona, where Bob was born. Baffert grew up there on the family cattle ranch, which Bill and Ellie purchased in 1952, four months before Bob came into the world.
Bob has three brothers ”” Bill, P.A. and Gamble (that’s right, Gamble), and three sisters, Dee Dee, Noree and Penny.
Mom and Dad Baffert will be at Belmont Park on Saturday. But twice before Baffert’s family was on hand at Belmont in hopes of celebrating a Triple Crown victory, and twice witnessed defeats that left them crestfallen.
Baffert is optimistic the third time will be the charm.
"I felt confident with both Silver Charm and Real Quiet, but I feel real confident with War Emblem," Baffert said. "He’s doing great. His work was pretty damn good."
Baffert was referring to War Emblem’s five-furlong drill at Churchill Downs last Wednesday in 1:00.60 under exercise rider Dana Barnes. The colt galloped out six furlongs in 1:13.40. The dark bay, nearly black son of Our Emblem was scheduled to have his final major work for the Belmont Tuesday morning, as Gaming Today hit the streets. He was due to fly from Louisville to Belmont Park on Wednesday.
War Emblem, purchased for $900,000 by The Thoroughbred Corp. after winning the Illinois Derby on April 6, strolled to a front-running, four-length Derby win on May 4 at 20-1. The victory was criticized because War Emblem set ponderously slow fractions.
But at least he got everyone’s attention. He was the 5-2 favorite in the May 18 Preakness, earning universal respect with a courageous three-quarter length triumph.
Baffert thinks the worst is over.
"The Preakness is tougher than the Belmont," Baffert said, "because you have to come back from the Derby after only two weeks."
After just a fortnight’s break, three weeks should seem like a holiday for War Emblem, who will be making his fourth start in two months.
For Baffert, he hopes Belmont day is Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day rolled into one.
THE HOMESTRETCH: Beau Greely admits he’s shooting for the moon in the Belmont with longshot Like A Hero. The 30-year-old trainer, who will be participating in his first Triple Crown race, has replaced Laffit Pincay Jr. with Pat Day for the Belmont. "Obviously, every horse is going to have to beat War Emblem," Greely said. "He’s proven himself to be a super-nice horse at this point, but everyone questions whether he can get the distance. It’s all going to depend on pace, where he positions himself, if there’s pressure on him, and whether he can relax on the lead. You either get the distance or not. That’s the question, and that’s why a lot of horses are going to try him. My horse has run well in all four of his races and he’s bred to get the mile and a half, so we’re taking a shot." Like A Hero, who lost his first start by a head before reeling off three wins in a row, is a son of 1981 Derby winner Pleasant Colony, who was third in that year’s Belmont . . . Craig Dollase is considering the $300,000 Triple Bend Handicap on July 1 for Met Mile winner Swept Overboard, but he was undecided on whether Eddie Delahoussaye would regain the mount from Jorge Chavez, who rode the son of End Sweep for the first time in an 11-1 upset in the Metropolitan. "I’ll have to talk it over with the owners," the trainer said . . . Hollywood Park will offer Bob Baffert bobblehead dolls to those in attendance on Saturday, June 15. Don’t expect Jenine Sahadi to be first in line.