NEW YORK -- A cranky traveler, War Emblem snorted and hopped when the crowd edged too close as he emerged from the van at Belmont's paddock after the flight from Louisville.
"No running, no running. Slow down," trainer Bob Baffert yelled to the photographers and TV crews, raising his arms like a traffic cop as War Emblem crossed a sandy lane called Man o' War Avenue.
Everyone wants to be in the presence of greatness. To see history made. There could be more than 85,000 fans at the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, hoping to watch War Emblem do what no horse has done since Affirmed in 1978 -- win the Triple Crown.
If War Emblem succeeds, the biggest winner won't be Baffert or the Saudi prince who bought the lanky black colt barely a month before it won the Kentucky Derby. Not even with a $600,000 winner's share, a $5 million Triple Crown bonus, and a stud fee in the future that would be astronomical.
The biggest winner by far will be thoroughbred racing.
Across the country, the sport has been in a slow but steady death spiral for a couple of decades. Attendance is low and tracks are consolidating. On Wednesday, a typical day at Belmont, the vast stands were mostly empty. Of the 4,082 fans who showed up, the majority were senior citizens.
Thoroughbred racing needs young fans. To get them it needs a superstar. A Secretariat for a new generation. Or a Seattle Slew. A horse that can capture the imagination by finishing the journey from the Kentucky Derby to the Preakness to the Belmont Stakes.
"We definitely need it," Seattle Slew's owner, Karen Taylor, said after the draw put War Emblem in the No. 10 post position in a field of 12. "It's been a long time since there's been no living Triple Crown winner. We need one. We need heroes in every sport. I think War Emblem is probably the ticket."
Seattle Slew died in his stall last month, 25 years to the day after his 1977 Kentucky Derby victory. With his passing, the sport lost not only the last living Triple Crown winner, but an icon that was regarded with affection by millions, young and old.
"He's still getting letters and lovely thoughts from children who never even saw him race," Taylor said. "A 12-year-old girl wrote the most wonderful poem about him. The fans all loved Slew. Maybe it was because of the fact that we paid $17,500 at auction for him. Maybe they associated with us because we hadn't been in racing a long time."
War Emblem, whose huge nostrils help him fill his lungs with air, seems almost a like a reincarnation of the similarly black and lean Seattle Slew. Just as War Emblem acts cantankerous at times, kicking and nipping at anyone who intrudes on his space, so Seattle Slew had his own haughty disposition.
"Slew was a ham, but he psyched out all of his opposition," Taylor said. "When he would come into the paddock, he was on his toes and he would just bounce. He was kind of like Muhammad Ali when he got in the ring. All opponents were frightened to death when we brought Slew into the paddock and he did his war whoop. Then, when he went on the track, he did it again."
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