LOUISVILLE, Ky. - War Emblem showed up at Bob Baffert's barn a mere three weeks ago. Even the trainer joked that he would need his best and shortest training job to win the Kentucky Derby.
Baffert came through.
War Emblem went wire-to-wire and left 17 3-year-old challengers in the dust, rolling to a four-length victory over Proud Citizen and giving Baffert his third Derby victory in six years.
"We sort of came in here through the back door, but we are leaving through the front door," Baffert said.
And with a lot of money. In addition to the winner's purse of $875,000, War Emblem earned a $1 million bonus from Sportsman's Park for winning the Derby after winning the Illinois Derby.
"I love you guys in America. Bob Baffert is a genius," the owner, Saudi Prince Ahmed Salman, said after becoming the first Arab to win.
Baffert's certainly a winner.
"I loved this horse," he said. "I just didn't know if he was good enough."
Neither did the bettors, who sent him off as a 20-1 shot.
The victory at Churchill Downs was Baffert's third in the past six Derbys; he won with Silver Charm in 1997 and Real Quiet in 1998. He finished fifth with Salman's favored Point Given in 2001.
The trainer joined Max Hirsch and "Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons as three-time Derby-winning trainers. Only D. Wayne Lukas, with four, and Ben A. Jones, with six, have more.
Baffert was lucky to get here. He lost more than a dozen Derby prospects for various reasons, including the Saturday morning scratch of Danthebluegrassman.
And the only reason he had War Emblem was because the prince bought the horse after it won the Illinois Derby.
Proud Citizen, Lukas' last-minute Derby chance after the colt won the Lexington Stakes, ran a solid second. Like Baffert, Lukas was not considered a serious contender despite past Derby success.
"I couldn't be happier with the way this horse ran," said Lukas, after finishing second in the Derby for the first time. "He beat some nice horses and I think he'll beat some more down the line."
War Emblem, as expected, set the pace in the 1 1/4 -mile Derby and never let go of the lead, finishing in 2:01.13 - ninth-fastest in Derby history. The record belongs to Secretariat at 1:59 2-5 in 1973.
The victory was No. 5 in seven career starts and made War Emblem the first Derby winner to lead from the start since the filly Winning Colors in 1988.
"I told the prince, 'I owe you a Derby after last year,"' Baffert said. "... The prince kept saying, 'Pinch me, Pinch me. Is this really happening?"'
Proud Citizen was followed by Perfect Drift and Medaglia d'Oro, all of whom broke behind the winner and never seriously challenged for the lead.
Harlan's Holiday, the 6-1 favorite, was seventh and never a factor.
Saarland, who was the second choice at 7-1, never made a run at the end and wound up 10th. The colt, trained by Shug McGaughey, is owned by Cynthia Phipps, daughter of the late patriarch of racing's most famous family, Ogden Phipps.
Irish-based Johannesburg, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner sent off at 8-1, was eighth in his return to America. Essence of Dubai, Sheik Mohammed's $2.3 million colt and supposedly his best Derby hope yet, was ninth. He went off at 10-1.
War Emblem's jockey Victor Espinoza, a first-time Derby winner, said he knew he had won the race at the half-mile pole.
"He was going so easy. I knew nobody was going to catch me," he said.
Espinoza said Baffert told him to be patient and not make his move too soon. Of course, it didn't turn out that way.
"He told me to come from the gate clean and don't move until the last minute. I think he told me that a thousand times. Finally, he was right," Espinoza said.
Actually, the rider had no choice. The first time he saw him was early Saturday morning.
"This was like my first blind date," he said.
Despite the late scratches of Wood Memorial winner Buddha and Danthebluegrassman, the field was one of the most wide open in years.
With no designated super horse like Point Given or Fusaichi Pegasus to grab the bettor's fancy, Harlan's Holiday went off at the highest odds ever for Derby favorites. In 1999, Baffert's entry of Excellent Meeting and General Challenge went off at 4.80-1.
The Derby favorite has won only twice in the last 24 years.
War Emblem returned $43, $22.80 and $13.60. Proud Citizen, who earned his spot by winning the Lexington Stakes, paid $24.60 and $13.40. Perfect Drift paid $13.40 to show.
Request for Parole was fifth, followed by Came Home, Harlan's Holiday, Johannesburg, Essence of Dubai, Saarland, Blue Burner, Castle Gandolfo, Easy Grades, Private Emblem, Lusty Latin, It'sallinthechase, Ocean Sound and Wild Horses.
Unlike other Derbys, there was little backstretch buzz during the week. There was no overriding storyline - the kind usually attached to a super horse. There was no super horse this time, and not even Baffert or Lukas drew their usual large audiences.
Baffert joked that the signs that used to hang from his barn with the names of his previous Derby winners were missing because they had been sold on Ebay. Actually, the track staff never got around to putting them up.
"We're just glad we were able to purchase this horse and it is a great win for all of us," Baffert said.
Security was apparent at almost every turn all day long, with National Guardsmen and police weaving in and out of crowds of racing revelers.
That didn't deter 145,033 fans, who came out on a breezy, sunny day to wager in one of the best betting Derbys in years. The crowd was the fifth largest in Derby history.
Heightened security has become a fact of life at major sports events since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and the Derby was no different. Six New York City firefighters were honored before the race.
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