04.16.13 Courtesy of America’s Best Racing
War Emblem started Kentucky Derby conversations after a dazzling 6 ¼-length victory in the 2002 Illinois Derby but it didn’t take long for owner Russell Reineman to end the Derby talk.
“The Kentucky Derby is the greatest race in the world, as far as I’m concerned,” he told the Louisville Courier-Journal after the victory. “And if you don’t belong, stay the hell away. You need to leave it to horses that belong there, so that’s probably something we don’t want to do.”
Luckily for the history books, soon after his victory the colt was purchased by The Thoroughbred Corp. The purchase was controversial with owner Prince Ahmed bin Salman immediately sending the horse to trainer Bob Baffert, who was looking at the possibility of having to sit out the Derby. Sold for more than $900,000, War Emblem would become one of the most infamous Derby winners of all time.
Baffert had a month to work with the colt before the “Run for the Roses” and while he didn’t win the Derby as convincingly as his previous race, the dark bay led at every call and won by four lengths. The win gave Baffert his third Kentucky Derby trophy in six years.
War Emblem was a tough horse to train and it showed. He went out the track every day with a cord putting pressure on his gum to keep him focused on work.
But despite his challenging demeanor, War Emblem won the Preakness in a time of 1:56.36. The win was the first time the horse had been behind a colt for more than one call and won. It was also the third Kentucky Derby winner that Baffert would take to the Belmont Stakes as a Triple Crown hopeful.
Known to be temperamental, two days after the Preakness War Emblem saw a hay bale he didn’t like. The colt lunged in front of Baffert, who was walking in front of him, to sink his teeth into the bale and throw it to the ground.
“There was a security guard nearby and he didn’t know what to do,” Baffert told the Los Angeles Times before the Belmont Stakes. “He had probably never seen a horse act like that, and he was totally shocked. You can never lower your guard with this horse. And if he knows you’re scared, he’ll really take a shot.”
Even with his dominating temperament, the stars did not align in the Belmont. War Emblem stumbled leaving the starting gate, leading a chain of events that would deny another dual-classic winner the third jewel in the Crown even though he briefly took the lead between calls. Winner Sarava made history by winning the race as the longest shot in the storied history of the Belmont Stakes.
War Emblem returned to the track two months later in the Haskell Invitational. In a replay of the Derby he took the lead and never was seriously challenged, winning by 3 ½ lengths.
War Emblem was sold to the Yoshida family that September [by Eugenio Colombo] and it was announced that he would be retired to stud in Japan after his 3-year-old season.
The Haskell win was the last time War Emblem would see the lead. He never got to the front during his final two races, finishing sixth and eighth against older horses. But those defeats didn’t tarnish the horse’s reputation and he was named champion 3-year-old male in 2002.
After finishing eighth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, War Emblem headed to Japan, where there were high hopes for his stallion career.
But those hopes were quickly challenged as the Derby winner proved to be a fickle breeder. In his first year at stud, he only covered seven mares, resulting in four foals. While the stallion bred 53 mares the next year, he fell back into refusing to breed many mares over the following years, prompting Shadai Stallion Station to take drastic measures.
“During past several years, he has lived among mares in one stable. It’s like the harem,” said Shadai Stallion Station’s Naohiro Hosoda. “His box stall connects to his own pasture so he can go as he wants [at any time] without any stress. He is in good [shape] and is happy with this life.”
The move to the new barn came with mixed results as he had his biggest crop of 44 foals in 2010 and 13 foals born in 2012. However, he slipped back into the doldrums in 2012, covering only two mares with no pregnancies.
While War Emblem has proven to be just as hard a case to figure out as a stallion as he was as a racehorse, his stats have shown the stallion has potential. All four of his first foals were winners with 20 of his 27 second-crop runners becoming winners, including seven group stakes winners. Overall, from 89 runners, 53 have won with eight winning group stakes.
It was determined that War Emblem’s breeding problems come from being intimidated by other stallions but that hasn’t changed his attitude toward humans.
“He is not crazy but a little strong-tempered,” Hosoda said. “He seems to trust the groom in charge, but does not follow other young staff. He may be too smart.”
War Emblem may not be the most famous Kentucky Derby winner to win in recent years but he has found a way to plant himself in the history books as a Derby winner that no one will soon forget.
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