Racing: War Emblem marches towards American Triple Crown

The draw at Newmarket deprived British racegoers of the prospect of a Triple Crown venture, but across the Atlantic an unlikely hero is just one race away from that immortality. War Emblem, the unconsidered 20-1 Kentucky Derby winner, has added the 127th Preakness Stakes to his tally and now the colt, dubbed "the Stealth Bomber" for his jet-black coat and lethal power, has the third of the great North American triumvirate, the Belmont Stakes, in his sights.

The draw at Newmarket deprived British racegoers of the prospect of a Triple Crown venture, but across the Atlantic an unlikely hero is just one race away from that immortality. War Emblem, the unconsidered 20-1 Kentucky Derby winner, has added the 127th Preakness Stakes to his tally and now the colt, dubbed "the Stealth Bomber" for his jet-black coat and lethal power, has the third of the great North American triumvirate, the Belmont Stakes, in his sights.

It is 24 years since Affirmed reached his country's racing summit as the most recent of the 11 US Triple Crown heroes. At Pimlico on Saturday night War Emblem stepped into the ring to become the 12th with a battling three-quarters of a length defeat of the rank outsider Magic Weisner. The Churchill Downs runner-up, Proud Citizen, was third.

Although War Emblem, who carries the colours of the Thoroughbred Corporation, was ignored in the Kentucky Derby betting, the Baltimore players took no chances and he started 2.8-1 favourite this time. Two weeks ago he was given a soft lead and romped away; on Saturday he showed his class again, but had to do it harder. His young jockey Victor Espinoza let the longshot Menacing Dennis carve the early fractions but had War Emblem poised on his outside flank. The big dark horse surged to the front going to the top turn and took a decisive two lengths out of the field at the head of the straight and though he was always in control as Proud Citizen laid down a challenge he had to knuckle down. In the end Proud Citizen's brave efforts cost him dear as he had nothing to repel Magic Weisener's run from the clouds that snatched second.

"We all found out today that opinions die but records live," said War Emblem's trainer, Bob Baffert, somewhat Cantona-esquely. "This horse is for real."

Stealth Bomber he may now be, but War Emblem started life as a stringbag. Humbly bred, he was sold for just $20,000 as a yearling. He became a Classic contender when he won the Illinois Derby and hit the headlines soon after when he was headhunted by the Thoroughbred Corporation's Ahmed Salman. His owner, Russell Reineman, was delighted to accept a reputed $1m for his colt.

That price is already recouped, with the $1m bonus for the Illinois-Kentucky Derby double and the total $1.5m winners' purses. Now a $5m bonus for a Triple Crown beckons.

The 12-furlong Belmont Stakes is the oldest and longest of the three historic races and Baffert knows full well how elusive a windmill it is. Of the 17 horses that have gone to New York with victories in Kentucky and Baltimore under their girths and failed in their final tilts, he has sent out two. In 1997 and 1998 his charges Silver Charm and Real Quiet both finished heartbreaking seconds.

The extrovert silver-haired trainer is convinced those near-misses will enhance his chance of making it third time lucky. "The pressure is on, but I think experience is going to help that we have gone through this before," he said. "All we have to do now is keep War Emblem healthy and fresh and ready. And we must keep Victor healthy too. He has this horse figured out; the horse loves him in return and is having fun."

Espinoza has no doubts. "The colt really impressed me," he said. "He's so professional. He's the best of the field and he's always going to be the best."

Yesterday at Longchamp, the Godolphin team bounced back emphatically from the defeat of Noverre by progressive French-trained miler Keltos in the Lockinge Stakes at Newbury on Saturday. Best Of The Bests gave the blues their second European Group One prize of the season in the Prix d'Ispahan, and took the notable scalp of Banks Hill in the process.

Ridden by Frankie Dettori, he made every yard of the nine furlongs. Banks Hill ranged to within half a length in the straight but lack of match-fitness told and the filly faded into third as Best Of The Bests quickened to hold Poussin's charge. Godolphin's racing manager, Simon Crisford, said: "We've always rated him highly, the race was perfect today in terms of both the ground and the distance, and it's a front-runners' track."

Earlier, Wareed initiated a Godolphin double in the Group Two Prix Vicomtesse Vigier but British raiders Sulk and Grey Pearl were out of the money in the second top-level contest on the Paris card, the Prix Saint Alary won by Marotta.

Aidan O'Brien has confirmed that Hawk Wing, for whom Triple Crown hopes here were entertained before his unlucky neck second in the 2,000 Guineas, is a definite starter in the Derby, for which he is disputing favouritism with his stablemate High Chaparral.

The role of star Ballydoyle striker in the Irish 2,000 Guineas on Saturday will now be left to Rock Of Gibraltar, attempting to become the first to complete the Newmarket-Curragh Guineas double for 10 years.

Darryll Holland will partner the William Haggas-trained Italian 2,000 Guineas winner, Dupont, in the German version today before jetting back to Britain to ride Katch Me Katie in the last race at Windsor's evening fixture.

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